The winter weather here provided us with a nice training challenge that i thought i'd share. Last week we got several inches of snow and i grabbed the dogs and went out and worked in it. It's cold and miserable, but the weather provides a challenge that can be hard to find on a small farm with a well dogged flock of sheep. That challenge is the opportunity to make sheep go somewhere they really don't want to go, and allows the dogs to dig down and really push into some heavy, stubborn sheep.
My farm has a fairly steep hill. It's not huge but rises somewhat steeply. I love that hill, it's wonderful for training dogs. It's an excellent place to tap into natural sheep behavior and use it to my advantage, and to train dogs naturally. Sheep don't care for going straight up a hill, they prefer to amble on a diagonal up a hill face. Look at the sheep paths in a field - they're never straight up and down. If your feet were split in two right down the middle, you wouldn't like going straight uphill either! This is especially true with big wool sheep. Hair sheep have smaller, more trim feet so it's not as big of a deal to them, but they still don't love it. I use this natural tendency in sheep a lot in training. For example, when teaching a youngster to drive, i do a lot of driving back and forth across the face of the hill. The sheep tend to be happy and calm, not too heavy (as going uphill) and not too light (as going downhill, with gravity and pull to the barn at work). This is just one way i use that hill, there are many.
Back to the snow days. At the bottom of my hill, there's a runoff stream cutting through the pasture. It's dry or only slightly wet 90% of the time. It'll run after a big rain if we're not too dry out. But in winter it runs pretty frequently, especially in a wet winter such as we're having this year. And with a wet winter and a big snow melting, it's running pretty good. So, add a wet area with running stream and a snow covered hill to go up, and 40 sheep, about half of which are wool, and it's a very good opportunity for the dogs to get in there and really have to push and figure out how to *make* sheep move from the bottom area to the top. Other times, the dogs are mostly guiding the movement of the sheep, controlling the leaders, with an occasional push at the rear to keep the stragglers up. With this winter situation, the dogs have to figure out how to push sheep from the side and the rear, and it takes a good bit more oomph.
It's interesting to me to go out and do this with the dogs, and to see how their methods work or don't, and how the different dogs will adapt to it. If a dog is having trouble moving the sheep, i'll try to make it a little easier by asking them to take a more diagonal path. I'll also let the stronger dogs have the first shot at it, as it does get easier to move the sheep uphill once they've done it and broken up the snow some. Sometimes i'll do this as a drive, and sometime as a fetch. It's always easier to fetch than drive, so i'll add that variable to my training plan. It's a fun and interesting thing to do on a snow day.