Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Suspect handling

The day did not start out promising. On the road from Bellingham to Arlington, we drove through driving sleet and rain. It looked to be a miserable training session, but the sun briefly appeared around Burlington and on the field it turned out to be cold and overcast.

Jennie, another of Brian’s students, was finishing up with her dog Elsa when I arrived. Elsa has come a long way since Jennie had to use an air horn to get her attention. She was working with calm and confidence when we walked through the gate to join them.

We did some outrun work, with Jennie and Elsa holding the sheep for me and Rodeo and us returning the favor. I was tentative to the point of being passive, and Brian yelled out in mild exasperation: “Start handling him! You’re wasting your money if you don’t handle him!”

So I tried to handle him more, starting with a down at the top. But he didn’t take it and Brian yelled at me, “He’s not taking your down!” Unfortunately I couldn’t tell that because the sheep were in front of me and I couldn’t see him. After a few more outruns I got him to listen to me a little better, and we decided to drive over to the other field to work on the Scotties there.

When we arrived, Brian explained that he wanted the sheep (about 20 total) put into the round pen, and then 5 or 6 lambs brought out into the open field so that he could work with them with his dog Belle.

We put the whole group in the pen and then Brian demonstrated with his dog Doc what he wanted me to do – basically a shed in the confines of the round pen to split off 5 or so lambs. “Now, this’ll be hard, but let’s just see how you handle it,” said Brian.

The truth is I like it when someone tells me something is hard, because it makes me focus and it takes the pressure off.

So I came out of my fog long enough to walk into the round pen, lay Rodeo down, and then walk towards the sheep at the other side of the pen. The adults milled around amongst the lambs, and I walked back and forth, trying to gauge their movement and shoo them until 5 or 6 lambs were on one side. As I walked, a gap formed around me as sheep drifted around and past me. Eventually there were 5 lambs and 2 adults at one end but when I walked towards them, with the null space around me, the adults pealed back towards the rest, leaving the lambs alone. I called Rodeo to me into the gap and he came right in, and then we slowly maneuvered the lambs to the gate and out into the field.

Brian had us work with the lambs a bit after that. I was so impressed with myself that I let my concentration lapse and immediately started getting berated by Brian during the subsequent fetches. “Handle him! Handle him! You’re not handling him!” came Brian’s British-accented voice.

I could tell he was really getting frustrated with me at one point because he called me “Jim.” He never calls me Jim, always “Kling.”

The problem was that I was reacting too slowly. The sheep would head off line but I’d wait too long to give him a flanking command. In at least one case I gave him a down at the top but he didn’t take it, and I kept insisting on a down command even as the sheep were running towards the round pen. Of course I should have given him a flank command to turn them back towards me, but I was too focused on getting him to obey.

“You’re acting like its training. But we’re pretending this is a trial,” Brian finally said. He had us do some driving towards a target, and I thought he responded quite well, driving with a fair amount of confidence, but again I was too slow in my flanking commands. Later he began to hesitate to walk into them, so we worked on walking into their heads and turning them.

Brian wouldn’t let me go until I improved my handling, so he kept drilling me, sending me out in different direction to do outruns until I handled him more actively. Finally it started to click and I earned approval.

“I’m not being too hard on you, am I?” Brian asked me at what point. I told him no, of course not. I always figure that if a teacher stops pushing you, he’s probably starting to give up on you. So I saw it as encouragement more than anything.

I’ve started to develop a thicker skin. I’m not as concerned about my own performance on any given day, and I’m not as worried about how Rodeo measures up to other dogs. But it’s not coming at the expense of a desire to get better. I still want us to become as good a team as we can become, but I seem to be more focused on the process of learning than on some hoped-for end result, like running in Open. I figure we’ll get there in time, his health and my persistence permitting. How long it takes isn’t really that important. 

1 comment:

  1. Sounds like a healthy philosophy. Dogs/handler teams develop at varying rates, and have different goals. Handlers/owners who are not engaged in the business aspects of sheepdogs and herding (a worthy undertaking, in itself), likely became interested in herding to bring-out the potential in their dogs, and chiefly as a recreational hobby, always retaining the "fun" in "fun"damentals.