Friday, December 9, 2011

Yucatan Peninsula trip

This post has nothing to do with sheepherding, it's just a compilation of my Facebook posts during my trip to Cancun and the Yucatan Peninsula. I left November 30 and returned December 8. I was there to cover the World Allergy Conference in Cancun for Medscape, but I carved out 4 days ahead of time to travel a bit.

Read at your own peril!

November 30 at 7:35pm
after a long flight, relaxing on a rooftop terrace bar at the Mundo Joven hostel in Cancun, sipping Corona and gobbling down fajitas.

November 30 at 7:56pm
So on the flight from Dallas to Cancun, I finished reading The Ruins by Scott Smith. It's set in the Yucatan so I got it thinking, hey, some fiction set where I'm going. Only, it's the literary equivalent of the move Se7en. Good book, but I never want to read anything by that author again.

November 30 at 7:56pm
And now the question is, do I get a rental car and drive to Tulum tomorrow as per the original plan, or do I stay where I am, save the money and spend it on a couple of day tours instead? Tough decisions. Maybe another Corona will help?

November 30 at 8:20pm
A look at the map reminds me that the Chixculub crater is here in the Yucatan (think, dinosaurs). Sadly it's too far a drive.

December 1 at 5:34pm
In a hostel in Tulum. Drove the rental car along the beach this afternoon and spotted a tropical espresso stand, so of course I had to stop. Good coffee, and the barista was from Mexico City and in the coffee export business. Had a long, interesting conversation with him about the coffee biz.

December 2 at 2:46pm
Sipping coconut milk. Drove 1/2 hours through the Yucatan interior to Chiquila, then caught a boat to Isla Holbox. The next two nights I'm staying in a little hut on the island. Tomorrow I'll rent a bike and explore.

December 2 at 8:31pm
I know I'm tired when I keep telling the store attendant. No hablo ingles! No hablo ingles! I think she thought I was insane.

December 2 at 8:38pm
Lunch today was in a little village in northern Quintana Roo, in one of the buildings that fronted themain street of the pueblo. It had an open kitchen and it was clear that the family that operated also lived on the premises. It advertised adobo. I saw the sign and had to turn back. Ivy makes adobo from time to time and we've eaten it in the Philippines, so I always want to compare. This was pork and very different, but delicious. The proprietor said it cooks so long that he gets up in the middle of the night to tend to it.

December 2 at 8:42pm
Left the rental car in the coastal village of Chiquila, then boarded a motor boat with 5 other people bound for Isla Holbox. 30 minute ride cost us 70 pesos (about $5). Sat down next to an Australian named Mark. He quit his job at a travel agency in Toronto to, wait for it... travel. We wound up going to dinner afterwards and I told him about my experiences hiking in New Zealand. Do you hike? I asked. "Well, I went to Nepal and trekked to Everest base camp." Yeah, I guess he hikes.

December 2 at 8:52pm
After adobo for lunch, I stopped at another little village to poke through it's market. Found quite an extensive confectioner stand. Bought some candied fruit, possibly plums, and candied limes stuffed with coconut. Mmm...

December 3 at 3:37pm
Rented a bike in el centro for 80 pesos, rode west to one end of the island and spent some time gazing at Bird Island, just offshore. Then I returned to the village and headed east, but the chain broke so I had to wheel it back. With the replacement I made it as far as an inlet that blocked further progress, but it was beautiful. The couple who rents the bicycles also own a Spanish restaurant, where I had an American afterwards. They've been renting bikes for 4 months, but she's not sure it's a good business because so much maintenance is required due to sea salt and the sun. "Do you rent golf carts?" I asked, referring to the ubiquitous mode of transportation on the island. "No, we hate them. They drive past our house every day and it's noisy. That's why we rent bikes."

December 3 at 3:41pm
Best moment today: a close competition between sitting in the sun, sketching Bird Island, and sitting in a hammock in the afternoon, resting after my bike ride, listening to John Denver's Sing Australia. Of course, there's the evening yet, so maybe there will be a new contender. I'm off for dinner in a few minutes, then to peruse the shops (which stay open very late) and watch the kids play basketball and soccer in the park.

December 3 at 8:26pm
Wound up meeting up with Mark the Australian again for dinner (a quesadilla-like dish made with Arabic bread, served with 4 widely varying sauces and a bean stew. All scrumptious. Then we found an Italian restaurant and drank Bohemia Obscura, a dark Vienna beer brewed in Mexico by a company now owned, alas, by Heineken. But they apparently haven't ruined the beer, as it was quite good. Mark and I talked mainly about movies -- Die Hard turns out to be a favorite of both of ours. We quoted lines and laughed quite loudly and drunkenly, I'm afraid.

December 3 at 8:51pm
On the way back to the cabana, I stopped at a little store to pick up a Corona, then added some mole sauce and horchata mix for souvenirs.

December 4 at 6:21am
time to say goodbye to Isla Holbox. Time for breakfast then a ferry back to Chiquila, then a drive to Cancun with a possible lengthy detour to Chichen Itza, depending on time and energy.

December 4 at 9:12pm
Arrived late at the Gran Melia here in Cancun after touring the ruins at Ek Balam. The hotel lost my reservation, and the woman at the reservation desk was singularly unhelpful. I thought I'd rely on my cell phone to pull up the confirmation email, but first I had to find a place to plug it in because it had run down. Reservation woman was unhelpful with that as well, but finally, grudgingly, allowed me to use a plug behind the counter. But silly T-mobile wouldn't give me a data connection for some reason. So when I swore softly in frustration, a (helpful!) staff member overheard and offered to let me use the hotel's internet, where I found the reservation and talked the unhelpful reservation woman into giving me a room after all. A request for couple of drink vouchers for my (45 minutes of) trouble fell on deaf ears naturally. 

But finally I arrived in my room, which is on the 5th floor of a building shaped like a pyramid.

Which has a hot tub on the balcony.

All is forgiven.

December 5 at 1:37pm
Yesterday on the advice of Palle Hoffstein and Dawna Read, I toured the ruins of Ek Balam. Very impressive, though apparently later period and not as architecturally sophisticated as earlier periods such as Chichen Itza. I climbed to the top of the biggest structure and had a look around, then walked around the base and followed a little path into the jungle, far from where the tourists who were intended to be. After several hundred yards, it led to a little thatch hut with a large pile of corn cobs next to it. Closer inspection revealed a stash of corn beneath the hut and a nearby roasting pit. Then I noticed that the open space nearby was filled with dried up, harvested corn. I hadn't noticed it before, and me an Iowa boy.

December 5 at 1:43pm
Near the convention center I saw an Argentine Steak House. I won't be dining there. Driving around the peninsula I saw recent, extensive deforestation and cows wandering around in the leftover rubble. It was quite depressing.

December 5 at 5:49pm
So, one of the... benefits?... of traveling alone is the weird offers you sometimes receive. This afternoon I stood outside the convention center and was hailed by a guy running a tour operation from a nearby stand. "You want to see the jungle? Maybe swim with dolphins?" I shook my head. "Or maybe... have some fun?" He flashed a brochure for an adult day spa. I shook my head and said "I'm not intothat." But then my curiosity got the better of me and I asked to see it. It contained pictures of semi-naked women, with he visa and mastercard logo at the bottom. "It's legit! They pay taxes," the guy told me. "$150 for a half hour massage with happy ending. $300 for one hour all you can do." 

So now I know the going rates in Cancun. And I have a name and phone number.

The bidding will begin at $50.

December 5 at 6:48pm
Marc Wisniak (the Australian) and I met on the motorboat to Isla Holbox and discovered that we were both staying at the Ida y Vuelta hostel, which I already knew was about 1 1/2 km from the dock. I was prepared to walk the distance because I'd been driving all afternoon, but Marc inquired with one of the golf cart taxis (yes, you read that correctly), and they said, "oh, it's not that far. You can walk." It was indeed 1 1/2 km, and we wondered that taxi drivers would turn down an easy fare. Later, Marc talked to the owner of the hostel, who told him that he refuses to pay the taxi drivers the 100 pesos (about $8) per passenger commission, so the taxi drivers often subtly refuse to bring guests to the hostel, or sometimes even claim that it's closed. Wow. Budding mobsters on Isla Holbox!

And last, but not least, here's a link to the news articles I wrote from the conference (incomplete as of this post, there will eventually be 10)

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Bonny progressing in the round pen

We spent quite a bit of time in the round pen with Bonny this week, and she improved quite a lot from last week, as did I. I'm moving better and she is flanking and balancing nicely on both her come by and away. Last week she pretty much only wanted to flank on the away (counterclockwise). She's also quite willing to come between the sheep and the fence.

The next challenge is to get a recall or 'that'll do' command on her. She's quite good at coming on command in the house, but if she's playing with other dogs or working sheep, she ignores me.

I think I have a training strategy for this now. She enjoys playing soccer (what border collie doesn't, I wonder?) and as with any other game, she ignores my repeated attempts to call her off. So now I'm playing the game with her, but keeping her on a ten-foot lead. Now when I tell her 'that'll do,' I can grab the lead and force her to come to me. After two sessions, she's showed quite a bit of improvement.

Today during the second session I told her lay down and then walked to the ball, telling her repeatedly to stay. Then I nudged the ball a bit. She couldn't help herself and got up to chase, but I gave her an 'ah! ah!' correction and she lay back down again, though she would leap to her feet again each time I pushed the ball. Still, a dramatic improvement from before.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Bonny in the round pen

Bonny is progressing. She heavily favors the away flank, in fact will hardly take a come by flank, so I spent some time trying to encourage her to go to the come by side. Mostly that involved trying to block her from going on the away flank and trying to follow her round the sheep moved in the come by direction.

As you can see from the video below, I had limited success, and I wound up sprawled against the fence at one point.

But Bonny seems to have a nice feel for her sheep and is thoughtful.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Stirling Acres Pro-Novice

Last weekend, we piled into my friend Jack's RV and drove over the Cascades to Stirling Acres ranch in Coldstream, BC, where Lee Lumb and her husband Dan hosted an intimate one-day trial.

It was a beautiful location, dry and cold, and Rodeo and I ran in Pro-Novice and a couple of times in novice.D

Jack videotaped our Pro-Novice run, which wasn't ideal, but he did some nice things. He didn't hesitate on his outrun, but sliced in on the top. As you can see from the video below, we missed our fetch panels but as per the rules of the course, we had to try again to make the fetch panels before moving on to the next obstacle. Rodeo did a nice job pushing them back in the direction of the setout, and turned them back through the fetch panels. It wasn't graceful, but it worked.

Then we brought them around the post and out to the drive panels. In P-N we were allowed to leave the post during the drive and walk part way out into the field, which I did. He made the first panel and then the cross-drive panels, and we eventually timed out on the Maltese Cross. The next obstacle would have been loading the sheep into a trailer, had we made it that far.

Overall, I was pleased. His flanks were very good and he had good control over the sheep after the initial chaos at the end of the outrun.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

"You better not screw her up!"

This week,we worked some more on Rodeo’s outrun, and he struggled a bit after some improvements last week. Brian set the sheep using his dog Bell on the opposite side of the field, a distance of about 200 yards, and Rodeo hesitated a bit on his outruns, but took a fairly moderate correction followed by a flank command to get going again.

He had quite a bit of trouble with his lift. He hasn’t had to lift off people and dogs much of late, and it’s a challenge for him. I couldn’t quite see what was happening from my vantage point – he would disappear behind the sheep and I could see them rustling a bit, and then they would start to move towards me and the next thing I knew he was circling them and busting them up.

Brian said later that he wasn’t using his eye on the lift. Instead he walked up into them, and when they moved away, he panicked and tried to head them off.

So Brian instructed me to move in closer, to a distance of about 30 yards, and repeated the exercise. This time I laid him down behind the sheep so that he couldn’t use his body, and after a couple of attempts he started using his eye more and managed to lift them without much fuss.

I had also noticed that he was using his body more while driving, wearing the sheep rather than keeping his distance. So this is clearly something to work on.

It was just one more example of the whack-a-mole nature of sheepherding. You work on certain things to improve them, and they get better, but other skills lag due to lack of work. This is where having a working sheep operation would be a tremendous benefit, I suspect, because daily work would sharpen all of the basic skills. Since training is inherently just an approximation of farm work, it will always be a challenge to keep ourselves primed.

Bonny is progressing nicely in her round pen work. She’s showing very nice balance and appears thoughtful in her work. When the sheep split, she’ll stand in place, turning her head from one group to the other, clearly pondering what to do next.

Initially, round pen work consisted of simply getting her to move around the sheep rather than chasing and gripping them, which was all she wanted to do at first. But by moving appropriately, Brian showed me how to help her get balance. It started with a session in the pen with Brian last week, during which he shook a water bottle with rocks in it to get her attention.

It almost worked too well, startling her to the point that for the first time ever she moved off the sheep and exited the round pen. Then she spotted the sheep in the open field and decided they would be much more fun to herd and there would be no big, bad man with a bottle. After a few minutes we rounded her back up again and put her back in the round pen.

She was much improved then, far more thoughtful and careful. Brian showed me how to encourage her to circle the sheep by standing near the sheep and moving them a bit. She would start circling to my opposite side, and to keep her going, he had me follow her so that the sheep would in turn follow me and she could keep going. After a few moments I changed directions, turning into her and blocking her path with the wand to get her to change directions, and then once again following her.

We quickly learned that she prefers to go on an away (counter-clockwise) flank. Given a choice, she would go that way endlessly. It takes a fair effort to get her to switch to a come by, and when she does she’s much tighter and more prone to busting in on them. But with some repetition she began to flare out a little wider on her come by flanks, and her away flanks were quite nice indeed.

On this particular day I was feeling a bit sluggish, probably because the session was at 11 am, earlier than usual for me, and I hadn’t eaten lunch yet. Whatever the reason, Brian had to keep shouting “Move! Move!” at me, and I never did quite feel as energetic as usual.

Brian was quite pleased. “She could get better in a hurry,” he said.

On the way out, he had one more thing to say: “You better not screw her up, Kling!”

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Souls Old and New

I've often heard the term 'old soul,' without really knowing what it meant. But I think of Rodeo as an old soul. He has such a gentle demeanor and calmness about him (at least most of the time). And his piercing blue eyes make him seem far older than his years.

Bonny, on the other hand, is definitely a new soul. And I mean that in a positive way. She's full of boundless energy and enthusiasm, and everything in the world is new and exciting to her. For her, life seems all about possibilities.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Bonny's Big Adventure

The first lesson learned this week was: Never tie your 8 month old puppy to the fence with a leather leash.

Brian had me send Rodeo on an outrun and follow him down field so that I could correct him when he came in too tight at the top. I sent him and started jogging in that direction, but then I heard Brian shouting and I turned to see Bonny running straight towards me, dragging the foot or so that remained of her leash.

Where's Bonny?

If I needed a reminder of just how keen Bonny is, I had it. She chased and ran, and eventually got tired enough to let me grab her. I brought her back to Brian’s car, hunched over as I clutched the 1-foot length of leash while she pulled desperately to get back at the sheep. I put her in one of the empty crates and then returned to work Rodeo.

Brian decided to try something a bit different to correct Rodeo’s habit of slicing in at the top of the outrun. He had a similar problem with Belle and addressed it by running out and correcting her, pushing her off the sheep as she was in the process of completing the fetch.

This violates the usual rule of correcting a dog at the moment she makes a mistake, as most trainers will say that dogs don’t remember anything after the fact. But he said it worked with Belle and she improved. He suggested we try it and I agreed, feeling that there wasn’t anything to lose by it.

So Brian had me get Rodeo excited before the outrun, which I did with some words of encouragement and excited body language. Then Brian sent him on about a 150 yard outrun. As usual, Rodeo cut in at the top and buzzed the sheep, and Brian went to him, going through the sheep to correct him, probably 15 seconds or so after Rodeo had made the mistake of flashing in. Then he called Rodeo off, set the sheep back out and sent him on another outrun. Sure enough Rodeo improved significantly, kicking out more and not buzzing them at the top.

Then I sent Rodeo on an outrun, and it wasn’t as good as the one he had done for Brian, but still better than it had been. I ran out to correct him but Rodeo seemed to turn it into a game, trying to get around me as I ran at him. Afterward Brian said that it had the opposite effect of what I wanted: It jazzed him up. “He didn’t look sorry.” So the next time I need to take the flag or a jacket, since I know he’ll take that as a correction.

A little later, Brian had me set up on a much shorter outrun, perhaps 50 yards, but he had me lay Rodeo down in a little dip where he wouldn’t be able to see the sheep. Then I stood back about 20 yards and sent him on an away flank. Rodeo stood up and went come by, and only took the away after a couple of corrections.

“Call him off,” Brian said. “Now, put him back there and set him up to on the come by.” So I walked out and physically tilted his body so that he was pointed to the left. “Okay, come back here and give him an away flank.”

I walked back and gave the command. To my surprise, Rodeo hopped up, turned his body, and immediately went right and completed a nice outrun.

“I really think he’s fighting you,” said Brian.

When I physically set him in position, it seems that it registered with him and got him to pay more attention to what I wanted. It was striking how quickly he leapt up and set out in the direction I wanted, with no hesitation or uncertainty. It may be that I need to be a bit more physical with him. The next time he refuses to take a flank, I might try physically putting him in the position I want him in and see if that improves his obedience. It could be that his flashing in at the top is another symptom of this lack of respect.

That could explain why running out at him might improve matter, even if it’s well after he’s made the mistake. It’s not a correction, it’s letting him know in no uncertain terms that I’m in charge. That could make him more thoughtful on the next outrun.

After working with Rodeo, we put the sheep in the round pen and put Bonny in with them. Brian worked with her first and flapped a jacket to get her attention. For the first time, she actually did some herding. She didn’t go into chasing and gripping mode. Instead she circled the sheep properly as Brian followed her, circling the sheep with her.

Soon I went in with her. She stood looking at the sheep a little uncertainly. We had corrected her to prevent her from chasing the sheep, but now she didn’t seem to know quite what to do. Brian instructed me to stand near the sheep and move them around a bit. Soon she started to move away from me to go around the sheep. “Follow her!” Brian called out.

So as she started to go around the sheep, I trailed right behind, and the sheep in turn followed me. We all went around in a whirlwind until I started getting a little dizzy. “Good. Change directions!” I stopped and waited for Bonny to swing around to my side of the sheep, then stepped towards, her holding out an arm to block her from the direction she had been going in, trying to get her to turn. Next time I’ll remember my training wand.

After a couple of attempts, Bonny did turn and began to circle the other way, and I turned to follow her again. After a few dizzying cycles, Brian asked me to stop following her around the sheep and begin backing up so that she could get used to pushing the sheep forward. She did a pretty good job, and in fact started giving out a little bit as I moved backwards. Brian had me back up to the fence and when I did Bonny stopped. “Lie her down,” he called, and she took it. “That’s how you’ll get your lie down: When the sheep don’t have anywhere to go.”

Afterwards, Brian declared her ready for formal training. Up until now we'd just been putting her in the round pen from time to time and putting very little pressure on her. But she's taking corrections well and listening, and she doesn't lose her head. There's no telling how talented she might be, but she has the characteristics needed to train her. 

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Different Dogs

I haven't written much lately because training has been frustrating of late and it felt as if we were doing the same thing over and over, and making little progress. Not much joy in writing about that.

Rodeo has become very hesitant, stopping on his outruns and looking back at me. Repeated commands get him going again, but he often walks right towards the sheep rather than completing an outrun. Voice encouragement helps but he loses his head, flashing in and busting up the sheep at the top.

This past weekend I house-sat for a friend with sheep, so I had a rare opportunity to work short sessions twice a day. This seemed like an ideal opportunity, but after the session Saturday morning I was beginning to despair: Nothing I did seemed to break him out of his funk.

I recalled the advice that Brian has given me a lot of late, to keep trying different things and "Let the dog tell you if you're right."

The person I was housesitting for happened to have a copy of Talking Sheepdogs by Derek Scrimgeour, so I decided to read it in hopes of gaining some ideas. A section early in the book caught my attention: He talked about providing encouragement and feedback to the dog when it's doing something correctly. You can't say, 'good boy,' because it will draw the dog's attention towards you and away from the sheep. But dogs don't really respond to words, anyway, they respond to tone. So Scrimgeour advises repeating the commands but in a praising tone, the same tone you would use to say 'good dog!'

Rodeo's hesitation seemed like lack of confidence, so I thought encouragement might work. Saturday evening, I took him out to try. The sheep were about 100 yards away. "Come by," I said, and he took off at his usual pace. I didn't wait for him to get uncomfortable. I repeated he command almost at once: "Come by! Come by!" in that "good boy!" tone.

He didn't hesitate. He kept going and completed the outrun. For the rest of the session, and the next session on Sunday morning, I kept up the encouragement, repeating commands in a praising tone, and he showed hesitation only once, and that was a more challenging situation when the sheep were near a fence.

On Tuesday, Brian could see the change in him. "He's a different dog. Whatever you're doing, it's working."

The beauty of this approach is that I'm convinced it will carry us forward. His hesitation has come and gone over the past year or so, and it's not always clear why it happens. But this method gives me a way to talk him through problems, so I'm convinced that this is a big breakthrough for us. As he becomes more confident, I expect I'll be able to gradually back off the encouragement, but then start it again when he runs into challenging situations.

After working with Rodeo for a bit, we put Bonny in the round pen, and she was her usual wild self, chasing the sheep and gripping stragglers. The sheep were stressed and one of them ran into the fence in response to her. After some chasing, I caught her leash and walked over to the gate.

Brian had had enough. "I can't have her doing that." He took her leash and walked into the round pen with her. When she lunged forward, he snapped the leash hard and gave her a harsh voice correction. She lunged a couple of more times, but quickly caught on to the change in regime and quieted down considerably. Brian handed the leash to me and I walked around the pen with her. She stared intently at the sheep and moved with me, but only lunged once when we came pretty close tom. I snapped the leash and said "that'll do" in a harsh voice, and she settled right back down again. In fact by the end of that short session, she learned the "that'll do" command, coming to me whenever I gave it.

When I walked over to the gate to join Brian again, she lay down and watched the sheep, with hardly any tension at all. "She's a different dog, too," I said.

I tied her up to the fence and set the sheep for Brian so he could work with his dog Belle, and after I came back I remarked on how quiet Bonny was. Normally when I work Rodeo and she's tied to the fence, she carries on barking and whining much of the time. Brian grinned and said, "That's because I told her off."

As we left the field, we talked about her change in attitude. Despite the harsh corrections Brian had given her, she continued to come up to him for attention. He scratched her ears and said, "You grew up a little bit today, didn't you, Bonny?"

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Anyone can be an ethical breeder. It's so easy!

Hey, look! I'm an ethical breeder!



Only, I don't breed dogs. All I had to do was go to this web site, put in a few details, and bing! I got this fancy html code to paste into my web site.

Just how awful and cynical do you have to be to put up something like this? I don't know. You'll just have to ask the people at who created it.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Mt. Vernon Highland Games video

My friend Aaron took this video of our first run on Saturday afternoon. Thanks, Aaron!

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

In which Bonny inadvertently distinguishes herself

At the end of the lesson today, I prepared to move Bonny and Rodeo off the field and into the car, but she lunged at the sheep moving nearby and yanked the leash out of my hands.

Suddenly, it was no more round pen training for Bonny, it was the big field! Ten or so sheep bolted towards the far end of the field and she raced after them, dragging the leash behind her. I followed feebly, expecting that I’d have to wait until she tired herself out because she sure wasn’t responding to my repeated calls.

Then I thought to send Rodeo as well to bring the sheep back to me, thinking that she would follow and I'd have a chance to grab her when she came close. He made is way out there and the sheep came back to me on a pretty good line, and Bonny trotted along behind them along with Rodeo. The sheep moved past me and I prepared to leap at Bonny to grab her leash. But she stopped and allowed me to walk up and take it.

She’d just completed her first open field fetch.

Good girl, Bonny.

Mt. Vernon Highland Games trial

Day 1

Saturday was the big day. I’ve been anticipating for this trial since I first began driving to Dirk’s place for weekly training sessions three years ago. It’s the Mount Vernon Highland Games, and we’ve been going faithfully since we adopted Rodeo. The past three years he has been a spectator, staring raptly at the sheep from the sidelines.  

Many of our friends also come to the games, and I knew they’d enjoy seeing him compete, so this was a high-pressure environment for me, and I knew I had to find a way to relax.

Competition was set to begin at 2 pm on Saturday, and in an effort to calm my nerves a bit I drove with Ivy and the dogs to our training field in the morning to get some time in the round pen. Rodeo performed just as well as in our last practice session, taking his flanks and downs, and walking up confidently into the sheep

We only stayed 15 minutes or so and then got back into the car to drive to the games. On the road I said to Ivy, “The way he’s working, a top handler would win this trial with him. With me handling him, I have no idea.”

We drew a late run, 25th out of 30, and as we stood in the on-deck circle, my friend Aaron, who was preparing to video tape our run (thanks, Aaron!), asked me what I thought about while preparing for a run. Aaron is a first-rate Frisbee handler. He and his wife Jennie have a new dog Jeannie that they’ve only had for a few months. She hadn’t done Frisbee before they got her, and he has already won competitions with her.

“I just remind myself that it doesn’t mean anything,” I said. “Any individual run, good or bad, is meaningless. It’s what we do over time that counts."

I can’t say it calmed my nerves much, because I still felt that I could have pitched over any second when I walked out onto the dusty infield of the baseball diamond where the handler’s post was situated. But as always, once the sheep were loose, my nervousness evaporated as I focused on the task at hand.

We stood at one end of a rectangle about a hundred yards deep and perhaps 50 yards wide. Four sheep were set out to our left, moving away from us towards the exhaust gate at the far left corner of the field. As they had in previous runs, they went straight to the exhaust and stood there for the dog to pick them up.

The first obstacle was between a panel and the far fence. It seemed like it would be simple enough to keep them moving in the same direction, along the fence clockwise, until they passed the line. The sheep were somewhat dog broke, and perhaps that’s why they tended to ricochet and move back towards the handler, on the inside of the panel. Handlers then had to regroup and move the sheep back into position to try the obstacle again.

The trick was for the dog not to put too much pressure on them when they huddled at the exhaust, so that they would leave calmly and not try to beat him to come back towards me. I gave Rodeo a lie down and walked him up gently when they started to move, and he kept contact with them and made the first obstacle.

The second obstacle was a wraparound in a clockwise direction and another turn, and was pretty easily accomplished since it was just broad, directional movement. Then came a turn around the post and another push between a panel and the fence to our right. The next step was a quick turn followed by a chute that simulated a bridge crossing a stream.

After the turn around the post, the handler could leave the post to help, so I moved to the entrance of the chute. After coming around the panel, the sheep were headed in the direction of the exhaust and it was pretty much impossible to stop them. I tried waving my crook at them but finally gave up and let them go. Rodeo gathered them up and brought them in on one side of the chute opening while I stood at the other, using my crook to cover that side. He gently pushed them in and through the chute without a lot of fuss.

The next was obstacle was an easy turn, and then came the pen. Rodeo brought them up perfectly and walked them in, with a lot of stamping and flailing about with the crook on my part. But the sheep stayed nicely in line and moved into the pen. We got all our points, with a time of 4:40 out of an allotted 5 minutes. As it turned out, we were one of 8 teams out of 30 that got a full score of 28 on the first day, and the time tie-breaker put us tied for 6th place.

Day 2

In the second flight, we were up 13th. The course was quite similar, but slightly shortened so that there was a maximum of only 24 points, but it ended with the pen like the previous day.

There was no drive, instead we began with a gather and then straight into the turn around the post.

We immediately had a problem. Rodeo cast out quite wide on his outrun, but for some reason he busted the sheep a little bit and caused a split. 3 of the sheep headed to the exhaust while the other remained near us. I gave Rodeo a down and waited patiently, hoping that the lone sheep would join its buddies.

It soon did and I sent Rodeo back to the exhaust, where we began again. We made the turn and then headed to the chute, and with some challenges we got the sheep through and made it to the pen, where we timed out, for 20 points out of 24.

After our run I spent some time watching other runs, and a bit of time wandering around the rest of the games. I wasn’t sure if we’d make it to the final round or not, but had I re-checked the scores from Saturday I would have known I was safe. Only 3 other teams were within 4 points of us, so even if all 3 got full points on their second run and beat us with a tiebreaker, the worst we could have finished was tenth. As it happened, we came in 7th in the combined totals.

The final round began at 2, and we were up first. Well, no time to get nervous.

The course was a bit different this time. Back to the left hand drive through to the gap between the top panel and fence, but this time it continued around the fence line, down the right hand side of the field until the sheep went through the gap between the pen and the fence, about halfway down the field to our right hand side. Then the sheep were to cross to the left in front of the handler, loop back behind the handler’s post to the right, and back through the chute, one more turn, and the pen.

Rodeo did a great job lifting them off the exhaust. I laid him down when they moved away from the exhaust gate and then walked him up to push them parallel to the fence line and through the first obstacle at the top. I was ready with an ‘away’ flank if they started back towards me, there were no problems. The sheep turned at the far right corner and began moving at a nice trot down the field towards me, in just the trajectory I wanted, so I downed him and let them move themselves though the second obstacle between the gate and the fence. We completed the rest of the course without too much trouble, but were foiled once again at the pen and timed out.

24 points out of 28, which turned out to be good for 7th place overall and our first time in the money.

I was very pleased with the weekend, not just how we placed, but particularly how consistently we performed. 

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Preparing for the Highland Games

Last week we spent most of the session in the round pen and a single sheep, in preparation for the upcoming Mt. Vernon Highland Games trial. Brian set up several obstacles in the round pen, but Rodeo had a lot of trouble to begin with. He took his flanks but did not want to walk up on the sheep.

He would move forward hesitantly but failed to take control of the sheep, so it would drift and I’d have to give him a flanking command to turn its head back in the direction I wanted it. But the same thing would happen: Rodeo would hesitate and lose contact with it again.

In frustration I called him off and Brian and I talked about it. “You need to communicate with him,” Brian said, and I knew he was right, but I just couldn’t work out how to do it. Corrections didn’t help.

I said as much to Brian, and he said:“It doesn’t matter what you do, as long as you get the desired effect. The dog will tell you if you’re right.”

So we tried it again, and the same thing happened, until in frustration I finally said “Come on! Get up! Get up!”

And lo and behold, he got up. He leapt to his feet and pushed into the sheep, in fact a little too hard. “Steady!” I called, and he hitched, and suddenly he was working the sheep beautifully. And there was a bounce in his step.

Soon after that, we set up a miniature course with 5 obstacles in the round pen in an effort to simulate what we might see at the trial, and Rodeo made all 5. In addition to giving him a ‘get up’ command to encourage him on the drive, I had to lay him down often and allow the sheep to drift and settle, so that I could see which way its head would turn. That would be important in the trial because it’s a small arena, and it would be easy to lose the sheep to the exhaust or the setout pen, where it would be challenging and time-wasting to pull them back off. By downing him and waiting for the sheep to settle, we'd have much better control.

After the lesson, I stayed around to work on some driving, and I used the ‘get up’ command to help him, and I could see his confidence building. We did some cross drives and he walked into them confidently.

I also noticed that he became less hesitant on his outruns – he wasn’t stopping and looking at me. I suspect that he was hesitant about driving and that was affecting everything else. When I bolstered his confidence by communicating with him more, it spilled over into the outrun as well.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Good News for Washington Wildlife

Last week a photo of a grizzly in the North Cascades.

This week confirmation of a fourth Washington wolf pack, about 90 miles east of Seattle.

Later this month we're going to Yellowstone, in part to see the wolves, grizzlies, and other wildlife. It's nice to know that some of it is returning to us.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Whidbey Island Classic

After a couple of days of rain and clouds, the sun finally made an appearance Monday morning as I left our campsite in South Whidbey Island State Park. I was too late for the handler's meeting anyway, so I stopped for espresso at a drive through stand and ordered banana bread, which turned out to be moldy.

Can I blame this for what happened? Fungal poisoning? 

Well, our Pro-Novice run was undermined by a major handler error.

But first, the good part. Rodeo did very well on his outrun. The sheep were set out about 250 yards away, in a field that sloped gradually upward from left to right, culminating in a grassy knoll. The setout pen was behind that knoll, well out of my sight.

Sending Rodeo on an away flank would have put him into the pressure from the setout pen and made for a simpler lift, but I was concerned that he would lose sight of the sheep due to the terrain, and he has had problems recently with longer outruns. So I sent him left, to the lower slope, where the sheep wouldn’t leave his sight. That was also the direction of the exhaust, so it also eliminated the chance of a crossover.

He took off at a good pace, but his attention was quickly drawn by the exhaust and he started to turn that direction. At this point our training in the aftermath of the Rocky Ewe trial in April paid off. I yelled “No!” and he immediately turned his attention upfield and continued a nice outrun.

He hesitated a couple of times, and I encouraged him until he made it to the top. There he hesitated a bit and didn’t completely cover them, so when he completed the lift the sheep drifted off in the direction of the setout pen. Off they trotted, over that grass knoll, and Rodeo followed out of my sight.

And just like that, I was out of the picture. There was absolutely nothing to do but wait to see what happened. I figured I’d give it a minute or two and then walk down the field and over the knoll to help him.

My internal clock ticked the seconds away. I put my hands behind my back, trying to look nonchalant. Tick tock, tick tock. 

That’s when the highlight happened. Within 20 or 30 seconds, the sheep reappeared over the knoll, moving at a nice trot, with Rodeo behind them in tight control. No zigging or zagging, just a nice trot towards me. He took my flanking commands, and we made our fetch panels.

He brought them to me and I started the right hand turn around the post, and that’s where it fell apart. Maybe I was starting to feel too good about his performance out there beyond the knoll. Or maybe it was the mold in the banana bread – whatever it was, I blew it.

“Come by!” I commanded, and Rodeo went the wrong way. “No! Come by” I repeated, and he kept blowing me off, taking the wrong flank while the sheep began to drift towards the exhaust. What is his problem? I wondered. He’s not doing what I tell him. He’s going to his left instead of…

Oh, snap.

“Away! Away! Away!”

I'd confused my flanking commands, giving him one when I meant the other.

It was too late. The sheep were on the move towards the exhaust. Rodeo took off after them but they made it to the corner of the fence line and he couldn’t pull them off, so I walked out to help him and we retired.


You always learn something at trials. I learned that Rodeo has improved on his outrun and fetch, though because of my error we never got to see how he would do on the drive.

Most of all, I learned that I still have a heck of a lot to learn.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Promise and Tragedy

Again this week I brought Bonny along for our training session. We worked a bit on Rodeo’s outrun, and he still has a tendency to wait on me. Brian told me, as he often has, that Rodeo is waiting on me because when he becomes hesitant I tend to repeat the command rather than correct or encourage him, as the situation demands. This is probably our central challenge right now, and it’s up to me to overcome it.

But the real highlight of the lesson was Bonny’s first time on sheep. She’s young yet, just 3 1/2 months, but we decided to turn her loose in the round pen and see what she would do. I had little doubt that she’d be keen based on her intense interest in the sheep, and she didn’t disappoint. She raced into the fray, singling out one sheep and hounding it around the pen, then turning her attention to the others. She didn’t have much of an idea of what to do, but she sure knew she wanted to do something. Bonny was also fearless. One sheep stood its ground and stamped its feet, and she didn’t back down.

Just as Bonny took her first steps in awakening to her heritage, I found out later in the day that her sire, Skipp, journeyed to that other pasture this morning. Sonya isn’t sure what happened, but he fell ill suddenly. I know she’s heartbroken and I am very sad that we won’t ever get to see him again.

Ivy and I took care of Skipp a couple of times and he was a joy to have around. It was a big reason why we decided to adopt Bonny, because he was such a nice dog. And a camera hound:

Skipp with Ivy and Rodeo

Bonny resembles Skipp quite closely. At her first visit to our vet, who also saw Skipp, the receptionist commented on the resemblance:



Life is certainly a circle, and Bonny’s journey begins as Skipp’s ends. 

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

A new addition

After months of deliberation and soul-searching, we finally decided it was time to bring another dog into our household. We have a small house and two cats, so we knew it would be a tight fit.

But in the end we were persuaded by a rare opportunity: a litter of puppies whose parentage we're very familiar with, and who are quite well-bred. On the one side is Skip, who belonged to our original trainer, Dirk Vansant who is now living and training in Belgium. Dirk was high on Skip as a potential trial dog but a farm accident sent him to an early retirement. We hosted him a couple of times after corrective surgeries and he was a real pleasure to have around. His roots trace to a number of fine dogs in Europe.

On the other side is Sookie, owned by my friend Andy Hummell. She came from Laura Vishoot and traces her lines to dogs from Jack Knox, Patrick Shannahan, and Bruce Fogt, among others. Sookie is also a very nice dog who is very friendly.

Our pup is Bonny, a tri-color female who has been with us for a week.

The cats, predictably, have mixed feelings. Our 12-year old Scottie doesn't like her much, but six-month old Ezzio is quite fascinated and happy to chase her and be chased by her. All of this runs in Scottie's favor as it distracts Ezzio from tormenting him.

Rodeo seems to be accepting her, after some initial trepidation. He's not real happy when I close the door of a room to do some private training, but he likes to play with her in the dog run.

Today I brought her along for our weekly training session with Brian. Our friend Judy was there to have her dog Wilson evaluated, so she was available to hold on to Bonny while I trained with Rodeo. Part way through the lesson, Brian used his dog Belle to set the sheep for Rodeo to do an outrun, and the two dogs watched the action together:

I think they'll get along just fine.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Rocky Ewe pics

A couple of weeks ago at the Rocky Ewe trial, Diane Pagel asked me to spend a couple of hours with her 4-month old pup Reba, who is out of Scot Glen's Don and Diane's Lucy, to help socialize her. As you can see in the picture below, Reba is almost a mirror image of Rodeo.

Diane was kind enough to take some pictures of us. And now I know why Diane has such great shots on her website. I chose a spot for a picture and she said, "no, no, over there by the road." So I dutifully moved, and the background really enhances these pictures. Thanks, Diane!

Friday, May 13, 2011

blinding outruns

The past two weeks we focused on the blind outrun. Last week was spent almost entirely on a length setout, perhaps 200 yards, with Rodeo and I beginning close to the round pen, which held 3 or 4 sheep.

I sent him on an away flank that would force him past the round pen, and he would have to look up field until he saw the sheep I was interested in.

It was a struggle, to say the least.

At first Rodeo couldn't get past the round pen, running to the fence and staring at the sheep. After some corrections I finally got him to understand that I wanted him to continue down field, but he would only go about 50 yards before stopping and looking back at the round pen.

"No! No!" I yelled, trying to time my correction for the moment that he stopped and turned to look at the sheep in the round pen.

Then I tried a command: "Look back!" But it didn't do much good. Sometimes he would turn his head and look down field, but he didn't find the sheep until I marched down field and directed him further in the direction I wanted him to go.

At the end of the session, Brian asked: "How many times did you send him down the field?"

"At least ten."

"And how many times did he stop and look back towards the round pen?"

"At least ten."

It's safe to say that we've got a lot more work to do.

This week we did some more work with the same exercise, and he showed improvement. He still fixated on the round pen at first, but with corrections he pretty quickly turned and ran down the field until he caught sight of the sheep. At first he would go at them without thinking much, so his outrun was terrible, but I was just glad he found them. As time went by, though, he started to flare out better when he saw the sheep so that the lift and fetch weren't too bad.

Near the end of the session, after a correction away from the round pen, he actually turned and started to look down the field for sheep. That's an important step that hopefully shows he's beginning to understand what we're after.

"I think you'll be able to redirect him at a trial if he goes after the exhaust," Brian declared after this week's session. That could be important on a lot of Pro-Novice courses where the sheep setout can be as far as 300 yards or more. Ultimately Rodeo has to trust me when I send him for sheep, but in the meantime, even a redirect will allow us a chance to finish the outrun and hopefully an opportunity to finish the course.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Extending the Drive

One of the first things Brian said when I arrived was, “I never said he was a Pro-Novice dog. I said he could handle Pro-Novice in some trials.”

The distinction was lost on me, so I asked, “What’s holding him back? The length of the outrun?”

“No, the drive.”

So we focused on extending Rodeo’s drive a bit. Brian had us do a short gather and then turn the sheep and drive them out to “The idol,” which is a small rock pile about 50 yards from where we stood. Rodeo took his drive commands and did pretty well, but when I asked for an inside flank, he just looked at me.

I tried a “hey!” correction, several in fact, but he still wouldn’t take the command.

“He’s blowing you off,” said Brian. “You need to make him take the flank.”

So we tried again, with the same results.

“Call him off,” Brian said, and looked thoughtful for a moment.

“I’m changing my mind. I think you need to help him.”

I looked out and realized that Brian was probably right. Behind us there were sheep still in the round pen, and I realized that the close proximity of the two groups of sheep might have been confusing him. I also knew from the Rocky Ewe trial that we need to work more on communicating to him the direction of the sheep that I want him to take. By helping him, I could reinforce that aspect of his training. 

Thursday, April 21, 2011

"He's a Pro-Novice Dog Now"

When I arrived at this week’s lesson, the ribbing began immediately. “Here comes the hero!” said Brian as I arrived. Later it was, “Now that you’re a big hat, I guess you’ll be giving us lessons,” and so on. Admittedly, there are worse things to be teased about. 

Jennie was out working with her new dog Jean, who was hanging back a lot as she walked the sheep down the field. Later she decided on her own to take the sheep for a little drive, marching them steadily down the field as we watched. She had a very nice pace.

Jennie worked Elsa a bit and then stayed around to help with our training. We focused on the issue that with our Pro-Novice run Saturday morning. He has to know that the sheep I want are the ones I’m facing, and to trust me that there are sheep in that direction even if he doesn’t see them.

At first we did short outruns of 75 or yards or so, with Jennie and Elsa holding the sheep near the round pen. There were sheep in the round pen as well, so Rodeo had to know not to go after them. At first he focused in on them and I had to tell him off, but Brian didn’t think much of my initial attempts at communication. On the first attempt, when he wouldn’t go for the sheep I wanted, I called him off.

Brian let me know that this was a mistake. He needed help to find the right sheep. Calling him off was like a punishment, and he hadn’t known what to do. Instead I needed to come closer and give him a gentle ‘no’ when he focused on the sheep in the pen, and encouragement when he looked at the others.

After a few attempts, he ignored the sheep in the pen and went straight for the ones I wanted.

Then it was time to up the challenge. Jennie held the sheep in the same spot and Brian had us walk to the far end of the field, 150-200 yards away. I sent him and immediately started walking towards the sheep in anticipation of helping him. But he ignored the sheep in the pen and went for the right ones. He was hesitant and needed some help getting the lift, but that was no surprise because they were backed up near a fence and other obstacles. It was a tough situation, and he handled it.

Then for good measure, we reversed it and put the sheep in the far side of the field. Rodeo and I stood behind a walled pen so that it was truly a blind outrun. I sent him and away he went, looking for the sheep until he found them. The fetch wasn’t perfect by any means, but we were well on our way to solving the problem we’d encountered in our Pro-Novice run. I'm confident that by the time we enter our next trial, Ken Peninsula, he'll be ready.

Brian thought so. “He’s a Pro-Novice dog now,” he declared at the end of the session. 

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Rocky Ewe part 3

It was about 5 pm Sunday afternoon by the time the Ranch runs were set to begin. Bob and a few others moved the panels and pen, and Brian, who was judging, moved his minivan close to the red cone that marked the handler’s post. This is definitely the minor league level. Almost everyone else had left, leaving just the 11 handlers in Ranch to watch each other’s runs while the lawn chairs, card tables and canopies were cleared up and packed away. Behind them and through the gate, the cars and trucks steadily emptied until only a few remained.

The course was about a 75 yard outrun, through a fetch panel, a right hand turn at the post, followed by a short left hand drive and a right hand turn back to the fetch panels. The sheep were to be driven back through the fetch panels and to the pen.

I hadn’t thought a lot about our run throughout the day, and wasn’t particularly nervous when the first four runs were completed and it was our turn at the post. I wasn’t at all sure how it would go, but at least I knew he’d be able to see the sheep this time.

Bob approached me just before the run and asked me to keep the sheep in the pen if we succeeded at it, because following our run they were going to drive sheep from the exhaust back to the setout for the remainder of the runs. I told him I would.

Someone said “Jim Kling is up” and then I walked forward to the post. But something wasn’t right, and I turned back to see Rodeo watching me. “That means you, too!” I said, and he bounded forward happily.

I sent him on a come by flank and he took off on a nice wide arc. Near the top he hesitated and looked back at me – not unusual when he encounters a dog and person at set out. I gave him another flank command and he started forward again, then stopped once more. Another command got him to the top and he completed a perfect lift and fetch through the panels. I gave him an away flank to turn them around the post to my right, and he took the command well. But I was slow and the sheep drifted too far to my right. By the time I gave him a come by flank and he turned them back to the left, they had made quite a wide turn around the post and I knew we’d lose a few points.

But he got turned them back in the right direction and brought them back on line, and drove them in a nice measured pace through the first drive panel, on a right hand turn and out to the fetch panel. He took all his flanks and drove them steadily through the fetch panel, where a final come by flank turned them back towards the post.

I walked to the pen and everything looked great as he pushed them towards me. I laid him down and the sheep started moving into the pen. I turned my attention to them to complete the pen, expecting to give Rodeo a walk up command to put additional pressure on them if needed to complete it. But suddenly the sheep were headed the other way, out of the pen, and I realized that Rodeo had gotten up and circled the pen for fear that the sheep were getting away. I gave him a come by flank and he managed to cut them off before they circled the pen. He turned them towards me and we were able to get a quick pen, but at the cost of some points for pushing them back out.

I completely forgot Bob’s instructions to leave them in the pen, so I opened it to let them out. “Keep them in, keep them in!” I heard Bob yell, and quickly remembered. But it was too late. Rodeo was behind the pen and the sheep popped out. But it only took 30 seconds or so to pen them up again, and this time I kept it closed.

This video of the run was taken by our friend Jennie. You can see me suddenly realize my mistake as I’m opening the pen back up again.

I stood with Jennie to watch the rest of the runs. I knew we’d had a good run, so I was watching to see how many I thought were better. The winning run, with Cindy Baker and Kael, came 2 or 3 spots after ours. I watched it and knew immediately that they had us beat. By the end, I thought maybe we’d placed 3rd or 4th. Brian later informed me we’d come in 2nd, with a score of 69 out of 80. Not bad!

Jennie and Elsa ran at the end. Elsa did a nice job on the gather but had some trouble with the drive and Jennie wound up walking out to help her. I thought Elsa did well – she kept her head and tried hard on the drive. The sheep drifted a bit and Jennie was just a bit off on her timing with her flank commands, so that the sheep either didn’t get turned back in the direction of the panel, or they turned too far and ended up moving in the opposite direction. That happened a lot in the other ranch runs as well.

Jennie and I talked for awhile, and then I loaded Rodeo into the car. It was almost 7 pm when I hit the road and just before 11 pm when I arrived in Bellingham.

Rocky Ewe was a great experience. I’ve gone to a number of trials over the past couple of years, and competed in 3 previous ones. I’ve enjoyed each experience but I always felt something was lacking, like I should have enjoyed it more than I did. This weekend I realized that I was getting the full experience. Even before our final run, when the only competition experience was our disappointing Pro-Novice run, I was really enjoying myself and didn’t feel all that concerned about how well we would perform in Ranch. I’d finally managed to take the competition in stride and not let it affect everything else. Volunteering for set out also helped because I met more people and learned a lot. And lastly, I have enough experience now that I can watch other people’s runs and have a better sense of what’s happening, so that I’m able to learn more from it.