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! :)

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

My Best Chore Dog

It is time now and then for Ryme to get a little press.

Ryme is the best chore dog, most of the time. He is great at helping me sort sheep.  He loves to work and begs to be the one that I pull out of the truck at any time we are at one of the sheep fields. He's really good at gate sorting and can almost pick out one sheep that I want from a group, and hold her or push her forward, depending on my body language. He is good with ewes and lambs and I have seen him push a baby lamb along with his nose like a wheelbarrow, when the going was very wet or muddy, just giving him or her a little boost to keep up with mom.

Just a little muddy!
I am teaching Ryme to shed, so that he can be more useful. Also this will give me another dog to practice my shedding skills with. He is completely different from Coal so it is a challenge but he is also more willing to come straight in. Teaching Ryme to shed gives us something different to do and work on. I try to give him  his own training session at least every other week or so, to make sure he continues to work properly.

Ryme does not like trials. He gets nervous and upset to say the least. Ryme does not like dogs that he does not know, and he is unsure about people that he doesn't know. Waiting for his turn is something he does not seem to be able to handle very well. Pretty much he does not go to trials any more, even though he is fully trained. Once in a while I make an exception when there is an event that I think might suit him. He is very happy to be a work dog and would work all day if I asked him to.

Ryme holding the sheep around the corner so that I can fill feed pans.
Ryme is superb at holding sheep off of feed so that I can set feed out without getting mobbed by the sheep. I can set him on a line to drive the sheep away and he will hold them without command until I call him off. He will not let the sheep run over him or run around him and I don't have to watch him every second to make sure he doesn't head them, either (ahem, Coal! LOL!).  Ryme makes feeding the sheep much easier on me. I sure appreciate that he loves doing this type of work. It is too bad that he doesn't get more of it.

Far from perfect, Ryme will skiff the sheep once in a while, especially on the come bye side and most especially if the sheep are moving quickly. Of course he had to do that right in front of the VIP that we had visiting recently. Ryme and I had moved and sorted sheep for a work session, and he had just been working like a top all that time. But just as the VIP arrived, Ryme skiffed the sheep right within view. Ryme! Arghghgh! That VIP got out of the truck grinning from ear to ear and asked me, "that wasn't your dog that I just saw skiff the sheep, was it?" I had no choice but to grin back and say "yes'! We all got a good laugh out of it. There wasn't much else I could say! :)

Sunday, February 8, 2015

"Oh, she's got good sheep again!"

Yes, Big Cat Boy is walking. Yes he is!
For two weeks now I've been trying to come up with a way to blog about the experience we had at the Derek S. clinic in Santa Rosa. I kept coming up with this angle, and that, but unable to put together what I wanted to say, blog-like.

I'm still not there, but the blog is hanging up as a result, like a big log-jam is stuck in the creek that needs to run, so the water is spilling backwards out into places where it shouldn't be..... I need to post about that clinic, which was for me a Bucket-List-On-Steroids weekend, and more. For many years I have wanted to attend a Derek clinic and just audit. When he was visiting the U.S. regularly a few years ago, I couldn't go. Then there was a travel hiatus for them; there was no one to take care of the farm, and the trip to the Western U.S. is so very long. And I gave up and just wistfully put it on the bucket list, never to be seen again (or so I thought). And then, the unexpected opportunity came knocking, to not only audit the clinic but to work dogs with Derek. Such good fortune! I am not accustomed to it. :)

"Oh look, (s)he's got good sheep again!"

I think this was the overall message that most people at the clinic "got", whether they audited or whether they worked a dog. Perhaps the auditors got it "more" because they could see the transformation happening time and time again, without worrying about what they themselves or their dog, would do.

If your dog works correctly and properly, your sheep will work well. If your dog does not work properly, your sheep will run, in fear. And that goes for training, trialling, or real work, all three.  They are not "bad" sheep. They are not "terrible", "runny" sheep. Most likely. Although there could be a few exceptions to those statements, for example, if the sheep have been spoiled by poor dog work. But in most cases, we can work our dogs to suit those sheep and move them efficiently and properly if our dogs work correctly.

And how do we do that exactly? Well you needed to attend the clinic to find out. :)

I took a lot of notes but I've decided that I'm not going to transcribe them here. I am afraid I might get pieces of it wrong and I have no desire to engage in online debate about it, nor be sorry that I misquoted or mis-noted one point or another. That was part of my I write up all my notes? No, I don't think so. I hope I can blog about some of the mini-topics that were covered, without misquoting, though. I will try...

Probably the most important moments of the entire weekend, however, were early on Sunday morning, when Derek showed us about moving sheep around ourselves, using about a dozen pregnant ewes in a round pen, with no dog. What exactly does happen when we run a single sheep into a fence? What happens when we threaten a ewe's stomach area? How do we best move sheep around to set up a shed? .... pure magic.

Walk, walk, walk.

This clinic was super-good timing for Spot and me. He is at the stage where he is a (big) sponge and we are developing our abilities side-by-side as he grows in maturity and knowledge. It was a fortuitous moment in time to be able to work him with Derek. Nice pace, good stops, at a nice walk. My mantra for training. Don't flank him unless I get a good walk. Ok that part I will transcribe because I am so sure of it! :) Walk, walk, walk. Walk, walk, walk. Sheep at a walk; dog at a walk.

Spot will only get better and better. (I am sure about that part too!). Even when he is seven years old, he will get better. I am hanging onto that bit!

"Oh she's got good sheep again!" I surely hope so!