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!”

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