Sunday, March 29, 2015

Sheep Chores

All of our sheep are up to date now on their vaccinations and worming and foot trimming as of yesterday's all-hands-on-deck session. Kind of like a barn raising, in miniature. :) It is a bit of work to maintain even just a few sheep for dog training. We try to keep them healthy. When you (the handlers) are a bit older, you are pretty careful about getting hurt while doing these chores. None of us wants to get caught by a Scottie's horn or stepped on by a sheep on your bad foot. It took a couple of sessions, because we have sheep in two locations, but now everyone is done. Well, I take that back. One set of sheep still needs one round of the other kind of wormer, but that will not be too bad a chore (no shots, no hoof trimming).

And, the guardian dogs have to have heartworm preventive and flea/tick stuff too..just like the border collies.

I was listening to a conversation a while back, in which one successful trialler was saying how he just rotates sheep in and out. His main focus is on being competitive with his dog(s) in the trials.  It is one way to go, that way you have fresh sheep to work, and you avoid the upkeep of maintaining a healthy long-term flock. But on the other hand, as another person in the conversation pointed out, some handlers actually like sheep. :) They are a big part of the equation and they are the basis for the sheepdog/shepherding culture (for lack of a better word) that we enjoy. Two outlooks, two methods, both participants in the same activity.

My dogs are just happy that we have sheep!

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

How Did You Get Started with Sheepdogs?

In a few conversations over the weekend with other handlers, this little blog topic floated up to the surface. But to be successful, it will require some participation.

I am wondering how other people got started with sheepdogs.  Are you fascinated with sheepdogs and the amazing ability to move sheep around a field or a course? Is it absolutely enthralling to wonder how they can balance sheep on the tip of their nose and drive them?

Here are some of the comments I have heard over the years, but I would love to list more and hear answers from others:

* I was at the Cow Palace with our daughter showing bulls and we saw the RESDA sheepdog trial there and were fascinated!

*I have driven by the Sonoma Wine Country trial every year and by golly, this year I decided to stop!

*I had been raising sheep for years and always went to Sonoma County Fair to watch the RESDA trial. A RESDA handler gave me a retired dog to help me load my lambs into the trailer and do odd chores.

* I wanted a border collie as my next dog; I had an aussie mix who resembled a border collie and the next time I wanted the real thing.

* I was doing agility (or obedience, or......) and wanted to try "herding" with my border collie, and I got hooked when I went to a sheepdog training clinic.

* We were on vacation in (name a state or country) and stopped by a local sheepdog trial just to watch for a few minutes, and we were interested enough to stay all day. We bought a dog on that trip.

* It was a natural progression from being involved with horses.

* I got a border collie as a companion, and wanted to try doing what it was bred for.

* We had some grass that needed eating down, so I got a few sheep to avoid mowing. Then I wanted my border collie to be able to move them when needed, so I called a trainer for a few lessons.

Let me know your story.........I am interested. :)

Monday, March 23, 2015


Here locally, we have three open trials in a row on subsequent weekends. This could be a good thing, or a not so good thing, depending on your perspective. Personally I was wishing that the three trials could be a bit more spread out. I only entered one of them, mainly feeling unprepared at the very early date this year when entries had to be sent in. Over the winter I'm really limited on how much I can train or even condition my dogs, so until we change the clocks I only work them on  the weekends and maybe squeezing in a very short practice during the week.

Last weekend we went to Zamora to watch the open trial, one day. It was tough going, even tougher than I could remember the four times that Coal and I ran. I was sort of glad I had not entered Coal. I didn't feel prepared enough to enter, when the entries opened, so I didn't. The sheep were fast and didn't mind turning on the speed if the dog took the tiniest wrong move, at least "wrong" in their opinion. It was fun to see everyone, though, and it was interesting being there in person for a few good runs (or good parts of runs) to see them. I like seeing runs where handlers demonstrate good stockmanship (or stockwomanship as the case may be).  I'm not sure this is a popular view but it is my view. On the drive home from Zamora we discussed what might have been done to better handle the course from this angle, and that. Even when the sheep are tough, we as handlers still need to try to run with straight lines and tight turns. It's a tall order, I know.

This weekend was Sonoma Wine Country. I had entered Coal in one Open class. We did OK, not stellar, but not terrible. I was happy with the outrun, lift, and fetch but our drive was not so good...we skimmed both panels without making them so our drive point deductions were massive. We timed out in the shedding ring, having got there with only about a minute to go. The sheep were very fit and healthy and moved more off of people than I might have expected. It was a beautiful weekend with some refreshing rain overnight which is sorely needed, but not enough to spoil the trial at all.  There were a lot of the very competitive open handlers in attendance at this trial (similar to Zamora) and as a result, there were some very nice runs and some high scores. There were also a lot of uncompleted runs and low scores or no scores so I did not feel so badly about Coal's and my (what I felt was a solid) attempt to attack the flat field course. At least we got the sheep around the course without losing them and I did try for those correct lines and tight turns even if we didn't quite accomplish them all the way around.

Next weekend is McCormack Ranch, which I didn't enter at all. Now I am feeling a bit regretful that I didn't enter Coal in that one. But I didn't enter so I have to live with that. Ahh well it's only a sheepdog trial and we are not that competitive anyway, but since Coal is now 8 1/2 years old I am wondering if I have waited too long to try to get to more Open trials. It's getting harder and harder to get into the trials, too. The waiting lists are sometimes long.

It's always interesting, listening to others' perspectives at the trials. Some of the topics include: working with the dog(s) that you have, vs. ( I suppose) buying new dogs to be more competitive. Another is, those who really enjoy and like sheep and being good shepherds, and in contrast, those who view the sheep (and maybe the dogs too, I am not totally sure) more as tools to a competitive end, a sport, more of a game than it is for me. None of these views are wrong.

Getting a score and looking good to the outside eye on the trial field is not always a barometer of one's success at attaining and working towards goals.  There are so many moving parts underneath the surface in this activity that may not be noticed or viewed. But yet they are all important, and for those working on conquering some more private speedbumps and twists/turns in the road, those little victories are something to cheer about.  All of this, I do know! And such is my rambling commentary on recent trials. :)

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Training Trifecta

A training trifecta, a triple play, a troika...

As I mentioned in the last blog entry, we have been so fortunate in our area, recently, to have three great sheepdog trainers who gave training clinics.  All three handler/trainers are considered masters of their craft, not just by me but I believe, universally in the international sheepdog community. I felt really lucky to be able to go to all three at least at some level. I spent some time asking different folks at the clinics, why they go to clinics, why they don't go to clinics, and so forth. The answers were all over the board, just as some folks prefer to take lessons from one trainer over another.

In early January there was a two-day RESDA-sponsored clinic with Bill Berhow. Later in January, Derek Scrimgeour was here visiting, from England, and there was a two-day clinic. And then in mid-February, Jack Knox was hosted at UC Hopland again, for three days. All three trainers are great. I can't really review what they did or said or advised folks to do, because I might misinterpret something for someone and I don't claim to be the mouth piece for any of the above. Since none of the three are vocal on the internet it is not right for me to put words in their mouth. But there are a few things I can say with confidence about them. Even though each has a somewhat different method (not all that different when you get right down to it), they all have something major in common that I do feel confident in saying, and that is that all three train and work their dogs in contact with the sheep. They all work the dogs in such a way that the sheep tend to train the dogs. They work such that the dogs learn in a fair fashion that makes sense and the dogs are never chased back off the sheep, out of contact. The focus is  always on the sheep and their movement and how to make that happen properly. To me, at least, all three handlers are encouraging to their students and are generous about communicating their vast knowledge to their trainees.

At the BB clinic, I could only go one day, and I worked Spot. It was a small group of dogs and only two auditors. At the DS clinic, I worked Spot both days and took lots and lots of notes; there were a lot of auditors. I did not count the auditors but I'll bet there were 15 or so, each day. For the JK clinic I audited only one day but also took a lot more notes. There were probably half a dozen or more auditors,  most of them repeaters, on the day that I went. I always save my notes and I have them from clinics going way back.

At the second and third clinic and in between, I asked around why people don't go to clinics, or why they don't audit more. I got a variety of answers.  I'd love to hear from people why they do or don't go to clinics and what they would like to see in clinics. Here are some of the replies that I got in person.

Some people have actual hearing problems that make it difficult to understand a clinician and thus, the clinic is of little use to them. This, I totally understand. Private lessons would be better, where the trainer and student are more one-on-one and the student can ask for things to be repeated if they were not heard. They might need to use radios when out in the field or something like that in order to help. Leading into this from the above problem, some folks have trouble understanding a clinician with a pronounced accent. This, I only sort of understand, because after a short amount of time a student should be able to pick up what is being said and done and follow along by what is done in front of them by watching. Still, some people feel this way and it is valid if they feel it. Staying on the audio topic, some folks prefer a clinic where they know that the clinician will be wearing a microphone during the training sessions, and also that the clinician will be sharing information in between each dog. Just my perception, but I think sometimes it is hard for the trainer to share what they have just done with some dogs, because they work so in the moment. So sometimes there is more sharing, or less sharing, in between dogs, and we have to accept this. What is so important to remember is that all the dogs are different. The learning is in the doing and by auditing and staying focused, we can follow along with what is done, at least that is my approach. I am always glad when the clinicians share after each dog but they really don't have to if I have been paying attention.

Another reason for not auditing was given by some, that they prefer to be working a dog and they find it hard to sit there all day and focus on the other dogs. Since I love to audit, this is somewhat hard for me to understand, but again it is valid because other people feel it. I do feel myself, however, that a person can learn a lot by watching and without that pressure of working one's own dog. I have gone back to my old notes from years past and used those ideas for new dogs of my own, or for other people's dogs when they have asked me to brain storm ideas with them for training problems.

Yet another reason for not auditing was that people either didn't care for that clinician or they had a perceived bad experience at one time with them, and they preferred not to go back. Since I had a very negative experience at a sheepdog training clinic many years ago, I do understand this. However my bad experience involved the clinician beating up my dog with a heavy wooden crook (before I stopped her from doing it, in shock). I don't think the bad experiences related to me recently were of this physical type at all; I think they were just people who didn't click with the method or the way it was communicated on that day. Anyway a bad experience does put a person off and it is hard to shake that off and give a trainer or a venue a second chance, so this is understandable.

I also heard from some folks that they would like to see someone different brought in, a point which I think was satisfied with the DS clinic (and perhaps why that clinic attracted so many auditors).
Still, I do feel that some folks missed a great opportunity to learn, by not going to any of these three clinics. On the other hand, I realize that even though many folks participate in this sheepdog activity, not all of them are driven to learn so much about it as I am, and I am sure there are folks who are even more driven to learn about it than I am! :)  Or at the very least, they have more time or resources for it than I do. So just as all the dogs are different, so are the handlers. I am trying to understand this and I would welcome any comment.

Coal auditing at the Zamora clinic, not by choice! :) He would rather be a participant since he can't take notes.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Happy to Go Back to Hopland

Ryme and Spot getting a little walk at lunchtime at the clinic on the beautiful University farm
Last weekend I went to the JK clinic at the beautiful Hopland Research and Extension Center facility. The Hopland farm is one of my favorite places, ever. We were treated to beautiful, sunny weather for the clinic which was not unwelcome for sitting outside, although we desperately need rain in these parts. I have audited JK now four times, I think, each time at Hopland in the same setting. And I have even watched some of the same dogs, which is interesting! Not all four years with the same dogs, but some of the 2015 dogs were the same as the 2014 dogs. There are folks who come back year after year to work with Jack. And there are folks like me who come back year after year to audit this clinic. I was so pleased to find out that the clinic would be held again. It is like going to a retreat, being in that setting.

So, what was my takeaway? Last year's takeaway was something that helped me incredibly with Spot. Spot was not entered in the clinic either year but last year I studied very closely what was done with certain dogs and I realized something I had been doing wrong. I went home and tried it, the second morning of the clinic before going back up to Hopland, and it worked like a charm. In fact it gave me a tool that made it possible for me to work 100% better with Spot and helped get us through the hard place we were in about a year ago.

This year, Spot is working great and I am just trying to bring him along correctly. This year, my takeaways are harder to define as they are larger and more universal. I am lucky that I was able to attend three great sheepdog training clinics in a row, with three people who I consider masters, since the beginning of the year. The Year of the Sheep is off to a great start! :) The overall takeaway from all of them was learning more and appreciating more how sheep should be moved, and why, and most importantly how to get that ideal movement in my/our dogs.

One of the things that Jack noted for us and showed us, was how the sheep responded and reacted to the different dogs, and how the sheep were handled. After some dogs were worked, the sheep would run away as fast as they could, to the far corner of the pasture. And then after some other dogs were worked, they would just stand still and drop their heads to graze as soon as the dog was called off, to end the session. The whys of that are something I will be pondering and experimenting with, on my own dogs!

He shared with us some of the little tricks of being a good livestock handler, which I thought was very interesting. If your stock are very scared of your dog or they have never seen a dog, let them get used to your dog very slowly. These ideas only make sense but sometimes the way things go, it is the complete opposite because people by nature get into a hurry. :) Also, something else that anyone knows who trials, but may not always remember, is that the sheep will change over the course of the event, whatever it is: clinic, trial, demonstration.

I'm so glad that the Hopland center decided to hold the clinic again this year. One of the reasons that I went, was to sort of cast my vote in that direction, so I am hoping they were happy with the clinic.

There is much to think about and contemplate! :)