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. 

Rocky Ewe part 2

Day 1 of the trial ended and I returned to Olympia and the hostel. After Indian food, I settled in for some reading in the common room, chatted with the proprietor and some of the guests, and then got another early start. On Sunday, we were set to run in Ranch, which involves a driving component but has a much shorter outrun and drive than Pro-Novice. I arrived early, expecting that Ranch would run in the morning as it had Saturday morning, but I hadn’t read the trial directions closely enough: The class order was to be reversed, starting with Open, then Pro-Novice, Nursery, and finally Ranch at the end of the day.

I settled in and watched the runs, and chatted with other handlers. Diane Pagel asked me to hold onto one of her puppies, Reba, a red and white pup who’s about 4 months old. She looks like a twin of Rodeo, almost the same color, with a split face that’s a mirror image of his, right down to spots on the nose. Diane wanted someone else to hold on to her so she wouldn’t be so much of a ‘momma’s girl,’ as she put it. I had her for a couple of hours and she did quite well, not pining away for Diane at all. Rodeo also accepted her pretty well, with little apparent jealousy.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Rocky Ewe part 1

Rocky Ewe is held in Roy, Washington, and run by Judy Norris. This was our first trial since September, which was also in Roy and run by Judy, though on a different field. Rodeo and I had a rough time at that trial (link:, so I approached this one with a little bit of trepidation. If Rodeo struggled, would I get as frustrated as I had before? Could I relax and enjoy the trial without worrying about how competitive we could be? I just didn’t know.

After considering several hotels that would take dogs, I managed to find a hostel in Olympia that did, Chez Cascadia (link: I like hostels, so I was quite excited to learn about it. $35 for a private room, plus $5 per dog. The private room was taken, though, so we slept in the bunk room instead. But the bottom beds were double beds, so they were more comfortable than expected and there was plenty of room for Rodeo. The hostel was a converted house and had a nice charm about it. Nothing fancy, but I’ll likely be back for future trials in the area.

Saturday morning I woke up at 5:15, had my shower, then drove 45 minutes to the trial, which was held in the Roy Rodeo Grounds. Much of one side of the field was inundated with water, so much so that a dog sent that way might literally have to swim in some areas. The sheep knew it too and lifted away from the watery half of the field when the dog picked them up at the top.

We were set to run third in Pro-Novice, and went to the post around 9 am. I immediately knew we were in trouble because the set out was over 200 yards away, and we had been focusing so much on driving that we had neglected long outruns. Still, I thought he might be okay if he saw the sheep.

But he didn’t. I sent him on a come by flank (away from the water, as did every other handler), and he immediately crossed over and ran towards the exhaust to our right hand side. I called out ‘look back’ and when he turned his head in the direction I wanted I gave him encouragement, but he remained fixated on the exhaust. After a few attempts I left the post and we walked towards the set out until he saw the sheep. I sent him and he completed an outrun and lift, but he seemed hesitant and a little bit cowed a few wet spots he had to traverse. For whatever reason, he never got control of the sheep and we retired.

It was eerily familiar to our run in September, but I find that I wasn’t upset. A little disappointed, sure, but I could shrug it off. The reason was simple enough: I knew what had gone wrong. He hadn’t seen the sheep, and he hadn’t gone on an outrun in the direction I was facing. We need to teach him to do that so that he’ll go in the direction I indicate and keep going until he sees sheep. Last September, I’d had no idea what the problem was and no idea how to fix it, which left me feeling incredibly frustrated.

After our run, I worked set out for the rest of Pro-Novice. I was ‘Little Bo Peep,’ according to Fran, who was also on the set out team. One handler let packets of 4 sheep out of the pen, another used her dog to push the sheep out towards me, and I used a bucket of grain to entice them to where I stood at the setout post. Rodeo’s job was to look handsome. The sheep wanted to drift in the direction opposite the watery area, so I stationed him on that side to prevent them from moving that way.

It was a fantastic learning opportunity. I had the best seat in the house to watch the end of each outrun and the lift, to see where a dog went right and a dog went wrong. Many had a tendency to cut in rather than completely covering the sheep, and many had to retire because the sheep would scatter and split as a result.

Later in the afternoon I performed the same job for Open, and so had an opportunity to watch some of the best dogs and draw some comparisons. Few of them cut in at the end of their outrun, and very few caused a scatter.

After setout, I returned to join the other handlers and watch the remaining runs. Fortunately I had dressed in layers. It didn’t rain, but it was cloudy most of the day and the wind frequently picked up, so we spent a lot of time huddling in our camp chairs, sometimes with a dog for a lap warmer. I found that I enjoyed watching the runs more than I have in the past because I understood more of what I was seeing.

(to be continued)

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Rocky Ewe this weekend

So we're off tomorrow to Judy Norris' Rocky Ewe trial in Yelm, Washington.

I searched high and low for a hotel that would take dogs, and found a few but nothing that looked very satisfying. I even considered camping though it would likely be cold and wet.

Finally I remembered my love of hostels and discovered Chez Cascadia in Olympia, about a 45 minute drive from the trial site. To my surprise and delight, they take dogs for an additional charge of $5/night. The private room was taken so I'll be sleeping in one of the dorm-style rooms, but I don't mind and it will cut down expenses.

Much better than a hotel.

"That's why this is so addicting..."

This week was a little bit back to reality. I’d been getting a little full of myself, pleased with my newfound confidence and assertiveness, but this week’s lesson was something of a struggle.

Rodeo was fine. He was keen as could be, and yipped in the backseat of the car as we turned on to 3rd Avenue towards the field where we train. He was ready to go.

In the field, he drove really well and took flanking commands, so that we were able to pretty consistently hit targets when driving the sheep. If this holds up, we should have a reasonable chance to make it around the course this weekend at Rocky Ewe. We’re entered in Ranch and Pro-Novice, both of which have a driving component.

But I wanted to work on Rodeo’s driving under pressure. Similar to last week, we set 3 sheep in the round pen and left the rest out in the field to create a draw (once released, the sheep from the round pen would want to seek safety in numbers with the sheep out in the field). Brian instructed me to send Rodeo into the pen to get them out, then send him to return them to me and do a right hand drive.

It sounded simple enough, and we’ve managed it before. But when the sheep came out of the round pen gate and Rodeo followed, I laid him down. The sheep were already at a fast trot so that by the time I sent him again, they were already well on their way to joining their compatriots and Rodeo was unable to catch up to them.

Brian had us “gate sort” 3 more sheep into the round pen, and then had us repeat the exercise. The result was exactly the same.

“Why did he lose them?” Brian asked.

I thought for a moment. “Because I laid him down.”

“Right. And what did that accomplish?”

… “Nothing,” I said sheepishly.

“Worse than nothing. Why?”

… “Because I laid him down and it took them out of his control, and then he got frantic.”

“Right. So why did you do it?”

I explained that I thought I should give the sheep a running start. I was thinking in terms of setting up a scenario that would challenge Rodeo. But the sheep were running and the other sheep were only 100 or so yards away, so I should have reacted to the situation at hand and realized that there was no time to stop him.

“The sheep tell you what to do,” Brian said, and I finally understood what he meant.

So the next time we did the exercise, and the sheep took off at a fast trot, I sent Rodeo right away. He looped around quickly and brought them back to me, and I attempted to have him drive them around me and then begin a right hand drive. But the gate to the round pen was still open and under pressure from Rodeo, they went right back in.

So I brought them out and tried again, and once again sent Rodeo right away and he brought them back to me. I tried again to get Rodeo to bring them around me, but the sheep split in a single and a set of two, and neither of us was quite sure what to do. “Look back! Look back!” I shouted to Rodeo, but he was too fixated on the sheep in front of him. Still, he was sufficiently distracted by the commands that he lost control of them and they beat him to join up with the other sheep in the field.

We tried several more times and failed repeatedly. For today, at least, this task was just beyond our ability.

I said as much to Brian and he nodded. “You just need more mileage. You need experience to react quickly to different situations. There are so many subtleties that you have to learn to react to. That’s why this is so addicting.”

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Highland Games trial entered!

Today I sent off our registration for the Mt. Vernon Highland Sheepdog Trial July 9-10. This is a special trial for me, as I've been attending the Highland Games and watching the sheepdog trials since before we ever adopted Rodeo. So I've been looking forward to competing in it.

Also, many of our friends who know and love Rodeo will be there, and it'll be the rare chance for them to watch him compete.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Driving Under Pressure

I entered us into the Rocky Ewe trial April 16-17 in Yelm, Washington. This will be interesting as it was the site of our last trial back in September, which came in the midst of some of our worst struggles in training. Rodeo was just beginning to learn to drive and I believe in retrospect he got quite confused due largely to my inexperience. In addition to our weekly sessions with Brian, I was training him on my own and he became very hesitant and uncertain, probably because of mixed signals and too many commands from me.

He has progressed a lot since then, and I think I have, too, so it’ll be a really good test of how far we’ve come. There are two separate trials, one on Saturday judged by Bonnie Block, and the other on Sunday, judged by (gulp) Brian. That oughta be interesting. We’re scheduled for runs in Ranch and Pro-Novice each day.

When we arrived, Jenny was finishing up her lesson. She’s been working with her dog Elsa for quite some time and made really impressive progress. A couple of weeks ago she bought a 1 ½ year dog named Jean, who has quite a good look about her. She and Brian were chit-chatting when we arrived, so I asked for a demonstration, and she cast out nicely on a short outrun. She also showed a tremendous amount of power, later inciting movement in sheep 50 yards away when she started towards them.

After Jennie left, we worked on Rodeo’s driving. Brian had me go into the round pen and do short cross-drives across the pen, and Rodeo did quite well. He has really crisped up his driving, moving right into the sheep when given a ‘right there’ command. He also continues to take his flanks pretty well, though he is hesitant to take them during a fetch.

After working in the round pen, Brian decided to try him on running sheep. He had us put one group of sheep in the field and the other in the round pen, then directed us to stand a little way from the round pen while he opened the gate. Once they started to trot towads the others, our task was to gather them to me and then reverse course and drive them back down the middle of the field, between the round pen and the sheep in the field, towards a group of feeders lining the fence on the far side of the field. The drive would be a challenge because the other packet of sheep would create a strong draw to the left as Rodeo attempted to drive the sheep.

Rodeo gathered them well, but predictably, they drifted to the left when Rodeo drove them away from me. I gave him a come by flank to turn them, but he panicked a little and cut in too close, turning their heads all the way back towards me. I tried to flank him back around but the pressure was too much for him and the sheep escaped to join the others.

We tried the exercise again, and this time Rodeo got them half way to the feeders, before they again began to drift and once again he sliced in too hard and sent them astray. This seems like a particularly good exercise to try again.

Something like this is likely to occur at the trial. I witnessed it during the drive at previous trials, where Rodeo would start out a drive well but the next thing I knew they had turned 180 degrees and were headed the other way. I was too inexperienced to see the cause, but I suspect it was him slicing in on them in an attempt to cover and turning their heads all the way around.

I’ll look for it at the trial, and if the sheep start to drift towards pressure during the drive, I’ll try lying him down and giving him a moment to think before I give him a flank command. That works on outruns when he’s coming in too tight – he gets up and  casts out further. Perhaps it will work on a drive.