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?"