Monday, January 26, 2009

Training Article: Give It Some Time

I was struck by a couple of learning experiences with my dogs in the last week. The common thread between two very different situations was how just giving things a little time to sink in can work to our advantage. Both Jet and Billy taught me a little about patience this last week and i didn't even know they were doing it.

For a while now, i've wanted to teach Jet to sit up and "beg". She's a long backed sort of dog and that particular trick is good exercise for her back and leg muscles, and it's something i'd like to do in her conditioning, especially as she's getting older. I've sort of halfheartedly tried to teach her in the past and she's been resistant to it. I'd get some treats and ask her to try it, over and over, in a session. She didn't do it well, didn't seem to want to do it, and certainly wasn't enjoying it. So i let it go. For the last week, for no particular reason, i've been giving the dogs a little treat when they come in from their last potty run, as i send them into their crates for the night. Jet isn't crated overnight, so i started asking her to "sit up" with one treat. That's it, one treat, no repetitions, no big deal. Each night she's done it just a little bit better than the night before. Last night, voila! She's sitting up like she's been doing it her whole life. I think it's interesting how easily she's picked it up doing it this way (and no, i didn't plan it, wish i could take credit for being that clever!). Before, when i'd set out to teach it, she'd seem slightly miserable about it. Asking her to just try it once a day was way more effective.

I also had an experience with Billy last week that brought home how taking your time and letting things sink in can be helpful in training youngsters on sheep. I was working on some short outruns on my field with him, the sheep set about 75 yards out. The lay of the land was such that when he was sent right, he'd be carried in towards the left, then pass a pond, where he needed to open out to the right and kick around the sheep. Picture an hourglass shape to the outrun. The first couple of times Bill ran out, he wanted to follow the contour and cross over, finishing his outrun to the left. I'd just stop him and redirect him back to the right, showing him that i expected him to stay on the side i'd sent him, even when the lay of the land might make him think about crossing over. I sent him a total of maybe 4 or 5 times, and could see he was making the connection mentally and doing it very well by the last outrun. At this point, i decided to put him up and let that be it for the day, to let it sink in with him. Now, if you know me, you'd know that was darned hard for me to do! But i did it. Fast forward to 3-4 days later. I arrive at the farm and find my flock peacefully grazing about 250 yards away, well out of sight for a dog, and decide to see what Billy will do. I sent him from about the same place i'd been training that bend in the previous session. He hit the edge of the pond and kicked out beautifully. Yay! Now the real test as he crests the first hill and starts downhill into a swale. This is where almost every dog new to the field gets drawn in, and many cross over, only catching sight of the sheep as they pass in front of them. I can't see Bill but then, there he is, reappearing well to the right and bending perfectly around his sheep, woohoo! It was a lovely outrun and seemed obvious to me that he'd not only learned something from the previous training session, he'd had time to generalize it to a more difficult situation as well.

I'll be trying to keep these lessons in mind for the future, as i puzzle out problems and training challenges. Thanks to Jet and Bill for a good reminder for me. Sometimes i wonder if the dogs think we're the ones that are the slow learners!

Thursday, January 22, 2009

40 Things About Me

I don't usually participate in these kinds of things but i guess i'll give it a go. You're supposed to list 40 things people might not know about you, then tag 3 more people, so here it quick before i pull it down!

1. My first border collie was a blue merle i found by looking in the local newspaper. I had to ask the (backyard) breeder what a merle was. Heck, i barely knew what a border collie was.

2. All of my dogs have the same first name, Baby. Baby Gael, Baby Spot, Baby Jet, Baby Zac, Baby Billy.

3. My dogs have about a dozen nicknames each. Silly, goofy, embarassing nicknames. Worse than Baby-whatever.

4. My brother is a stand up comedian

5. I'm very funny when i drink, like stand up comedian funny. Way funnier than my brother. My friends used to buy me drinks just to get me going.

6. I went to catholic school from 2nd grade through my first year of college.

7. I don't believe in organized religion.

8. I was big time into all sports growing up, going from season to season all year long, always at some practice or game.

9. I tried out for cheerleading once. I lasted about 10 minutes.

10. I'm a neat freak at home, a slob at work, somewhere in between at the farm.

11. I haven't worn a dress since i was 20 years old.

12. I don't own a single pair of non-jeans.

13. I refuse to eat any food that looks like it could come out of someone's nose - oysters, scallops...

14. I know how to surgically castrate ram lambs. I find this empowering.

15. I'm the oldest of 4 siblings, and the only girl. Why keep trying when you got it right the first time? All 3 of my brothers have children, and the first child for each was a girl,with only boys following. See what i mean?

16. I was the teacher's pet in kindergarten, big time. Ah, good times....

17. My first grade teacher hated me.

18. I try to be a better person than i think i really am.

19. I grew up in Louisville KY

20. I have a degree in Political Science, which comes in real handy in my job as a computer nerd.

21. I did one year of Graduate School. I got straight A's but hated it. The last day of school, i packed up my Ford Escort with my belongings and drove to North Carolina with no job, no place to stay, just one friend to help me get started out. I'm still here.

22. Sometimes i miss being a big time party girl. Nahhhh!

23. I can't sing. I mean really, really, REALLY can't sing. Don't ask me to. It's ugly.

24. I woke up on the backside at Churchill Downs one sunday morning. Nope, don't know how i got there.

25. I wound up in the middle of a lake in a rowboat with 2 friends (and a cooler, naturally. Hi Jenny!) one night when camping, and none of us could row us back in (you can guess why!). Heard a strange voice calling out "Robin French, is that you?", turned out to be a guy i only saw a couple of times a year, a neighbor of my grandparents. Apparently sound travels really well in the middle of the night on a lake, as he and his buddies wanted to know which one of us had been describing our pink undies....

26. I don't drink much any more!

27. I inhaled. Oh yeah.

28. I am a germ-o-phobe. I totally get why Howard Hughes washed his hands 87 times a day. I probably do more than that when i feed my dogs raw meat.

29. I like potato chips on my PB&J sandwich.

30. I've been living on my own since i was 18 years old, and got through college on my own tab with jobs, loans and scholarships. I'm kind of proud that the only contribution my folks made was to buy me a $10 parking pass when i first started out.

31. The only time i've ever been out of the country was for a sheepdog trial in Ontario.

32. I don't like scary movies and don't get why people do like them.

33. I'm a news junkie.

34. National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation is one of my all time favorite movies. Happy Gilmore and Billy Madison are up there too, along with Bull Durham.

35. My first job was at Burger Queen. Yes, Queen, not King. Remember the Eddie Murphy movie "Coming to America"where he's a prince from a tiny country and works at "McDowells", with the big golden arches out front? Same principal.

36. I got smushed in a car wreck when i was 19 and spent 2 months in the hospital with my legs in casts.

37. I love to fish.

38. My parents were big into sports when we were kids. Summers were spent at softball fields, winters at the bowling alley.

39. We didn't have a lot of money growing up, so family vacations were usually spent in a big tent at the lake. I wouldn't trade it for anything.

40. I'm pretty shy. Put me in front of more than a couple of people and i can hardly speak. Well, most of the time anyway... (see #5)

I guess i'll tag Julie, Becca and Nancy O!

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Snow Day

What a day! The Inauguration and the festivities have been amazing. And we're having a very well timed snow day on top of it. Apparently nature feels we in the Raleigh-Durham area should be sitting at home watching history being made. Even after all these years living in this area, it seems silly to watch the world shut down for a couple inches of snow, but hey, twist my arm and make me take a day off of work. I just heard the news on Ted Kennedy, sure hope he can rally again.

So, i got a couple of pictures of the dogs in our massive snow pack and thought i'd share. First, one of Billy who is looking so grown up now:I see close up pictures people take of their dogs looking up at them and they look so cute, so i got all of my gang to do it:


JetAnd finally, my favorite shot. Billy looks at me like this ALL the time.
It's his "i loooooooooove youuuuuu" look.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Training Article: Practicing Failure

"Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results." --Albert Einstein

"Practice does not make perfect. Only perfect practice makes perfect." --Vince Lombardi

"We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit." -- Aristotle

I want to talk a little bit about something that i think separates a good sheepdog trainer from a bad one, a quality that i think some people bring to this that makes them a "natural" at it. And that is the ability to try something, evaluate if it's working, and if it's not, to try something else. A sheepdog trainer has got to be flexible in his or her approach to training. If something isn't working, try something else! The handler is supposed to be the member of the team with the bigger brain. There's nothing that makes me cringe more than to watch a novice trainer making his dog do something wrong over and over and over, hoping that it'll get better. (See the Einstein quote above.) All you are doing is practicing failure, perfecting your failed attempts and firmly establishing a bad habit.

When my Jet dog was young and first in training, i was working with a trainer who really wanted me to get her bringing sheep out of tight corner properly. It made him crazy that she couldn't master it and he wanted me to keep drilling at it until she got it. She'd start into the corner but was uncomfortable with the tight space, and her eye would kick in making her want to cut back around the wrong way when the sheep would try to come out of the corner. So i went home and did some thinking about my young dog, who looked to be a talented girl with a little eye, was a little softer natured, and wanted so much to please me. And i decided i didn't want to bully this dog into doing something she clearly wasn't comfortable doing. I don't want that kind of relationship with my dogs, and especially didn't want to break the trust with this dog that was already trying so hard to be right. And i didn't want to keep hammering away on that corner work, having her doing it wrong repeatedly, and practicing failure. Being the (supposedly) bigger brained member of the team, i stopped to think about the skills she'd need to handle pulling stroppy sheep out of corners - a good flank with a nice shape and speed, confidence to pull up right in that corner to push the sheep out rather than flying through, etc - and i went and worked on the skills in an easier situation (open field), and practiced success. Next i took her into easier corner situations (easier sheep, a more open corner, etc.) and again practiced success. And when she had the skills to handle the tougher situation, we went back to it and she handled it beautifully, without a hitch, because the habit of doing it successfully was firmly set with her.

When you go out to train your dog, try to pay attention to what he's doing wrong, and try to figure out ways to help him be right, to set good habits. Unless you're intentionally allowing something to be wrong (see the article on Trading Problems), you should be trying to help your dog be right, and practicing perfection/success. I'm not saying your dog has to be 100% perfect all the time, but if your dog has a particular problem, you should be finding ways to help that dog be a little more correct all the time, and working your way towards perfection, rather than doing something wrong over and over and getting that wrong action firmly set in the dog's mind as "okay".

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Weekend Report

The Edgeworth trial was great, as usual. We ran on 4 yearling cheviots, which were very light and tested the dogs well. They were set about 350-400 yards out and broke hard to the left after lifting. There were very few straight, online fetches all day. After the fetch panels, there was a Y chute set up, good for an extra 5 points if it could be managed. I only saw it done twice all day and one of those cost the handler pretty dearly as it took so much time that the clock ran out before the pen and shed. The other completed chute that i saw happened so quickly, i'm not sure the sheep even noticed they'd gone through! On the first leg of the drive, the sheep could be a little heavy because of the exhaust off to that side. The turn at the first drive panel was tricky as the draw on the sheep changed near it, from a heavy pull back to a pull upfield causing the sheep to bolt, with the dogs out of position to hit the panels or fix the crossdrive line many times. The remainder of the drive was pretty straightforward. Penning was a real trick - the pen is fairly small and the sheep twitchy. Shedding (for those that got there) didn't seem too difficult. Kelly Bradley won it with her young dog Jim in his first Open trial, and Carla King was second with her Emma.

My dogs were good and bad. Jet started out and just didn't run well at all. Her outrun was good but when the sheep bolted off to the left, she couldn't seem to catch them to fix the line. We turned the post the wrong way because she wasn't covering the sheep and they beat her. The first leg of the drive was nice but when the sheep bolted up the field after the panel, she again wouldn't quite cover on the away flank to catch them. I guess it wasn't her day. I walked off and retired at that point. Zac ran extremely well. His outrun was a little tight across the top but the fetch was beautiful, very controlled and straight, with him having a lovely hold on his sheep. Turn and drive were also very good, as nice as any i saw all day. We came up to the pen with 4 minutes to pen and shed, and i was feeling pretty good about our chances to win or at least place high. Unfortunately one of the yearlings decided it wasn't going to be our day. I felt like Zac and i were working really well together but the one lamb just wouldn't give up and decide to go in. She finally broke off hard and Zac wanted to grab her, but i kept him from it with a stern reminder to behave. We got them all lined up to go in the pen when she broke again and Zac couldn't stand it, and ran her down and grabbed her. Rats! When Zac was first running Open, he had these same two problems, being a little flat on his left hand outrun, and not being able to stand a sheep racing off like that without him chasing it down and grabbing it. I think the long layoff with the pulled muscle probably brought them back up so i'll have to work on it again. He really ran beautifully though. It made for a nice birthday, for sure.

I didn't go to the novice day on sunday at the trial but heard it was very well attended, and the sheep continued to be very testing, especially at the pen. I spent sunday doing a bunch of lessons, with a couple of new dogs and people in the mix. It was a long fun day, with another birthday cake thrown in too. Thanks Becky!

I decided to run up on Monday for the funday at Edgeworth. It's so nice of the Wilson's to open up their farm and provide such wonderful sheep, and i wanted to be supportive as well as get my dogs out for some practice runs. I ended up setting sheep for a couple of hours, which was good fun and good for the dogs. It's always interesting to see things from the far end of the field. Almost all of the attendees were novice (or non-Open anyway) handlers and many of the dogs did very well, handling the sheep nicely. Some of course didn't, but many did. Zac was skipping a bit on his leg when setting out in the lumpy grass and i decided to not push it by running him when we got back down to the bottom of the field (he seems fine today) but i did run Jet. She ended up doing a double lift when she ran across some extra sheep hidden over the hill out at the side of the field on her outrun (an oops by the setout crew), going back nicely for the ones that were actually set on the field, good practice going back blind to about 400 yards. At the end of the day, i pulled Bill out and worked him on about a dozen of the yearlings and he was really spectacular, strong and smooth and confident, driving very well, walking smartly onto sheep challenging him, really just wonderful. Tommy and a couple of other folks i respect were very complimentary, which was sure nice. I was so pleased with him and it was just a great way to top off a good, long weekend.

Tomorrow is the big day - Gael's ultrasound!

Friday, January 9, 2009

This Weather... killing me! Sunshine outside, while i'm sitting here at work, how cruel. And tomorrow, the only day of this weekend's 4 day sheepdog trial event that i'm actually running, the forecast is for rain and sleet, while the other days are to be clear.

That's okay, because a wet sheepdog trial is still a sheepdog trial, so i'm going to drag my butt out of bed at o-dark-thirty and hit the road to VA. Three hours later i'll be at glorious Edgeworth Farm, my very favorite trial location, and waiting to run Zac and Jet in the Open class. The course will be smaller than at the October trial and the number of competitors less, with no payback other than bragging rights, but it's still an Edgeworth trial, yippee! Today, they're running a cattle trial up there, which i would have loved to watch. Tomorrow are the Open and Nursery classes, Sunday will have the novice classes running, and then Monday is a Fun Day for practice runs. I may try to go back up for Monday so i can work Billy some, but that decision will have to wait.

So, assuming i don't slip and slide my way off the road on the way up there, i'll be spending my birthday tomorrow doing my very favorite thing, running dogs. Wouldn't it be nice if one of them gave me a pretty blue ribbon for a present?! Spottie won there last year, so i think a precedent has been set!

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Life is Tough...

...for the dogs around my house.

Stinky rotten old work dogs that live in a barn. Yup, can't you see what a tough life they live?!

Life has been pretty boring lately for the Shoofly dogs i guess. We've had a lot of rain that has cut into time for training and even just hanging around the farm playing. Saturday they spent most of the day in the van, though i was out and about getting plenty of exercise! It was group lesson day at Julie's, with 10 dogs there for lessons. As usual, it was a great group of folks and we had a good time. Doing these lessons about once a month is a good way to monitor the dogs and their progress on a regular basis. I was really pleased with how all of the dogs did saturday and thought the lessons went very well. It makes for a long day having so many dogs to get through, but we always manage to just squeeze them in, working right up to the last bit of daylight. Having such nice dogs to work with makes it easier doing such a long day , that's for sure. Also as usual, we managed to find time for good eats, going to a local diner for lunch and then having surprise (to me anyway) birthday cake afterwards. Thanks guys!

Today was another drippy, soggy day. I got a couple of lessons in this afternoon but my own dogs are still in "laying around bored" mode. Well, except Billy that is. Being the only smooth coat, and therefore the easiest to clean up, he got to do all the sorting and chores around the farm, as well as even getting a short training session. Considering there's rain in the forecast almost every day this week, he may get called on to do a lot more of it!

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Driving Miss Daisy

Okay, not Miss Daisy but Driving Billy just didn't sound right. :-)

First, don't you just love that picture of Zac? Cold day, hot dog, bet you can guess what he was looking at.

Today i got Bill back over to Denise's flat field to work on his driving some more. He did really well! I'm not sure what it is about the flat field as opposed to my rolling pasture but i find it helpful at this stage of training, where the dog is just about to get the hang of driving. The sheep at Denise's are lighter and less dogbroke as well. It's interesting to me that there's a lot of pressure on this smaller field, but for some reason it doesn't interfere with the drive training and is even helpful. The dog can set up and start the drive and with just some little flanks, he learns to control the sheep and guard the pressure without overdoing it or running around to head the sheep. The dogs seem to really enjoy it and it makes sense to them. Today, Bill was driving very nicely, falling in behind and pushing, holding pressure on the sheep to keep a line, and even taking his inside flanks without a lot of extra calls and cues. I loved the hold he had on his sheep and the confidence he was showing. We started the day working on only 2 lambs and he handled that extremely well, pulling them out of corners and off the fenceline, showing good method and presence. I'm still trying very hard to not do too much with this youngster, only 17 months old, but it's sure tough when he's looking so good!