We have taken the last 2 weeks off of working stock. Chris has been ill and with the longer days I am starting to plant this years garden, settle the last details for the upcoming ASC of WA trial and apparently I needed a break too! I think there is a lot to be said for giving dogs and handlers a break every once in a while. It seems to allow the body and mind to reset when we get out of old habits and start fresh.
In our last practice, Molly was starting to give downs when the stock was stopped. For the amazing whirling dervish this was a huge step. So i’ve been working her more often with obedience drills at home: downs, stays, sits, waiting at the door. All of the basics that a growing puppy needs. I usually use the NILF principal with fosters. It seems to work very well and is easy to transfer and teach new owners. Molly picked up the game right away. While she’s really not quite ready, I’m also starting to reinforce a running down, but that’s a post for another day. Besides, she’s not that good at it yet!
In our lesson this weekend, I went in with mixed emotions. She’d been off stock a while. So she could either go in a bomb out miserably and show serious signs of regression… or she could walk in like she was the chick in charge and show me just how foolish I am. Which is another favorite game that she’s quite accomplished at.
Her first stop on the “Look How Smart I Am” express was to hold her down-stay for at least twice as long as she had been previously. To paint a picture, we walk into the arena and the sheep group together in one end of the arena. I put Molly in a down, holding her leash and move from side to side reminding her to stay. Typically she’d either try to break her stay or be so engrossed in the sheep that I could have pulled out a clicker and she’d not have noticed. This time my dog was with me. She was paying attention to me and holding her stay.
I then removed her leash, secured it around my waist, said a little prayer and started walking backwards toward my stock. Prayer answered and stop number two completed; she stayed right where I left her. Considering our relative locations in the arena, it made the most sense to send her Away to Me. I sent her, and just watched her trajectory. Looking for her to cut in at the top or in on the flank. To pause, hitch or generally get distracted or look out of sorts. Not a blip. She went out wide. She got almost to the fence took a direct left hand turn and started in to her stock. I was so busy bawling inside at her beautiful square flank that the sheep practically ran me over and then they slowed down. She had rated her flock and slowed her approach. Stop number three on the Look How Smart I Am express.
The rest of her lesson was more of the same. She was starting to rate her stock, gave a few very nice well placed downs holding her sheep to the fence. She cut in in the top of her flank a time or two, but i was asking her to go farther than I ever had before. She also zoned in on her stock during her flank on the Go-By side. However this time i was able to push her out successfully. Her handler was getting a little over confident.
When taking lessons, one can continue to practice the entire day with instructor permission. We went back 3 times for shorter 15 minute sessions taking 15-30 minutes in between. She was jazzed each time I took her out, but was still showing the elements of a more mature control that i’d been hoping would start to show.
During our practice times she really opened up her “Look How Smart I Am” and I was totally floored. My first thought was to change up the exercise. The hardest thing about working with Molly is just how easily she gets bored and tries to change the game on her own. I have to be a step ahead and anticipate and ADD moment.
My first change was to include the AKC obstacles that we’d previously been working around. The most interesting one was a zig-zag made out of cattle panels. It required her to stay behind her sheep and slow down as she was working about 15 head. The exercise was built to work a smaller number of sheep, but for our purposes it was perfect. She had to stay back and push the last sheep through while the first sheep were coming out. She was starting to learn not to just constantly cover the head. We went back to it a number of times as it also required me to work in an area with molehills. I had to watch her work and learn to trust my feet to stay upright. I was successful most of the time.
My next thought was to try and lead her into a few short fetches in the middle of the arena. However, my sheep infrequently left the fenceline without an escort. I started to work through some of those border collie circle drills. Bring the sheep to me, the start her in a direction. Pushing her out at the shoulder and changing directions frequently to make sure she was paying attention to me. Not necessarily looking at me, but moving out with my pressure and acknowledging my presence. After about 2 minutes, I got my desired result and started in on small fetches. Walking into my sheep, trying desperately to get away from them and letting her fetch them in to me. Rinse, repeat. She started to turn in on her fetch instead of just going around as in the circle drill!
Our final stop in the Look How Smart I Am express was nothing more than my ego. Originally, i’d been able to work Molly without a stock stick or flag or paddle or bamboo or other such accoutrement. My goal this spring has been to get her back to that place. So in our last practice session… in snow and rain and cold… we repeated the fetch drills. First with the stick, but after a minute or two I brought the sheep to the fence, downed my dog and set my flag against the fence. Said all the appropriate mantra’s and prayers about this not being easy or everyone would do it and how to handle a sheep that throws its self into the fence… and sent her off to bring them off the fence.
She brought them back with total ease. Ears up, tongue out and a dead down the moment she came to balance. I believe in flukes and coincidences. I walked into my sheep and sent her out again. She started to circle and stuck out my arm. She almost blew past me. I wiggled my fingers, and she continued to close in. I stepped out to add some pressure to wiggling fingers. She turned on her toes and went back the other way. Repeat with wiggling fingers and a step in. Still walking backwards, she started covering sheep bums. A fluke for sure. Until she was changing direction with every out-stretched wiggling finger.
That was the last stop on the Look How Smart I Am express. I’m a believer, she’s exhausted. It’s time to go home. Most of this should have blown up in my face. I pushed her too far way too fast without someone else to help me see the signs of stress or fatigue. The last day or so, she’s been running and barking in her sleep. I think she’s dreaming about her stock again.