Watching Your Sheep…
In a trial we will often see a handler who seems to be a bit slow with commands. Just a bit behind the sheep. Typically this is because the hand is watching his/her dog.
You are going to hear trainers and mentors tell you to watch your sheep. Stop watching your dog and watch your sheep. I heard it. I was smacked on the back of the head with it. It is excellent advice and instruction. A very good friend and mentor told me time and again, your sheep will tell you where your dog is and what it is doing. He wasn’t lying. It is true. For me, however, a relative beginner at the time, it wasn’t enough.
First as a beginner, before we can watch our sheep, we have to be able to trust our dog. When I start a dog I choose my sheep carefully so I know where they are going to be and I can put all my focus on my dog. I watch my dog to be sure my timing is correct with coaching, corrections, and my body positioning. Once I can trust my dog a bit more with his first steps, flanks, stops, and feel, my focus will begin to leave my dog a bit and go back to my sheep. Trusting the dog to do his bit. As a dog progresses in his training and becomes more trustworthy my focus shifts more to my stock to the point I can ignore my dog and finally read my sheep well enough to affect chores we are doing or a run at a trial.
To trust our dog we have to begin to trust ourselves. If you watch the really good trainers and clinicians they aren’t worried about the world coming to an end because of something the dog may or may not do. They are probably anticipating what is about to happen and have a plan in place to help a dog through the bump. They understand there is a process for every dog and poop is going to happen. They have enough experience that they know, whatever happens, they will just fix it and life will go on. As we gain experience we will gain this confidence as well. Our dogs will be glad for it, our timing will get much better, and our dogs will train up faster.
There is a process for both our dogs and ourselves. In the beginning, don’t worry about watching your dog. It is a necessity that will evolve with your coming experience.
Building A Relationship...
When we step up to the post with our dog it is typically after many days and months of training, work, and chores. Sheep time if you will. Time spent with our dog learning flanks, feel, commands… learning about sheep, learning about each other and learning to trust.
We develop a relationship which we hope will carry us through our career together. Rejoicing in the great runs and excellent work and trying to find answers when things don’t go as hoped or planned. It really helps if we like our dog and really doesn’t hurt if our dog likes us.
Sometimes this relationship comes together quickly. There is a quick bond and trust and off we go conquering the world of livestock together and in concert. And there are times not. Sometimes we are at odds, have different agendas, or just don’t understand each other. I’ve found with some students and dogs, the relationship building is best cemented off sheep and off the field.
Common tasks can sometimes be a path to a better relationship on stock. Learning to sit, walking on a leash, learning fun tricks, quiet time together watching a movie.
Developing and cementing the relationship with our dog in a non-stressful arena which allows greater strength of bond when we begin training and applying the pressures necessary to speak and direct our dog. Just sometimes, this trust is initially built off stock.
Sometimes things beyond our control happen when we step to the post... poop does happen... but for the other 98% of the time, our success, or lack there of, for the day was determined long before we stepped on the course.
We get what we train for.
Stepping up to Open…
When we step into the Open class for the first time we make a big jump. We are now in the highest class sheepdog trialing has to offer anywhere. We are saying we have a level of experience that allows us to help our dog have a competent, workmanlike go with livestock and we have a dog with the skills and experience to accomplish most tasks on most fields. Sure, we fall on our face from time to time and don't always have the runs we would like but we have the tools and resources to learn and get better. Even runs that go to poo will demonstrate a handler’s expertise and a dog’s experience. If nothing more than how and when we choose to retire.
That step into Open the first time can be very difficult. If we haven’t been there how do we know we are ready? We listen to our instructors and mentors. We watch Open runs, we train hard, and, at some point, we make the jump. From my own perspective, I went into Open too early and for the wrong reasons. I made things difficult for me and unfair for my dog. When it came time to consider moving my next dog up I asked a hundred people in a thousand different ways how they made their decision to move up or move a dog up. It took quite some time to get an answer that I could understand and somehow apply. An accomplished handler in my area said she moves a dog up when, in Pro-Novice, during a run she is handling a dog to win and not schooling her dog. This gave me something I could grab on to.
Once we have moved to Open we are now peers with the greats. Kevin Evans, Ricky, Serge, Jack Knox, Scott, Amanda, Alasdair, Tommy, Bill Berhow, Patrick, Beverly, Lyle... make your own list... it doesn't matter. There is honor here. I'm honored to be able to step on the same field with these folks... I may not win... actually my goal isn't to win. Winning and losing is up to the judge. My goal is to have a competent, workmanlike run. A run that my peers might see and think "Dave and his dog know what they are doing. Nice job." I take pride in that.
Very few of us are probably “ready” with that first step into Open. Prepare as best you can, ask questions of the right people, be fair to your dog and livestock, and welcome into the pool.
You And Your Instructors...
It can be uncomfortable but it is okay to say no to an instructor. Sometimes we don't understand an exercise... either how to accomplish the task or what the goal/objective is.
If you don't understand, ask. Sometimes we feel an instructor may be putting our dog at risk. Sometimes they do. Sometimes it is for a very specific reason or purpose. Sometimes it is a really bad idea. At the end of the day we are our dog's only advocate. If you don't like what you see say so. If you really don't like what you see, and aren't satisfied with your instructor's response, it may be time to walk.
You are paying your instructor for a path forward. That includes you attaining the knowledge to, some day, become independent of your instructor and walking forward with the ability to train your own dogs. With that in mind, when I take a lesson I usually take two lessons simultaneously. I need to understand. Whether giving or taking a lesson I tend to have a lot of conversation so I can walk away the tools I came for.
Early on in my career I would often leave a lesson with my head spinning and way too much information bouncing about. Usually my retention was about 20%. My remedy was to allow more time and more discussion. This has carried over to giving lessons... lots of discussion and many lessons that go waaaaay over the allotted time.
I've found, as I'm sure most trainers have as well, that the dog training is the easy part. The hard part is training new handlers who's parents weren't selected for breeding because of their sheep working ability.
Time... a bit about Wyatt.
My Wyatt, will be 1 year at the end of this month, just went around sheep with a bit of sense for the first time yesterday afternoon. I tried him at 9 months and he was just throwing himself at sheep and running them into fences. Put him up for a month and tried him again. Same thing. Put him up for another two months and now he is beginning to look like the real deal. A little time will do great things for some pups.
We are looking for confident dogs that can manage stock in a workmanlike fashion and actually enjoy the job. It is a journey of different lengths and paths for different dogs. As a trainer we have to possess the flexibility to work with the dog we have in front of us. It is our job to help our pup be successful. Sometimes that means just giving them more time.
So I had my dog Cap. Good dog, moves anything, very confident and athletic. Biddable as well... But... with too heavy a hand or too much input, Cap could get pouty and quit working. Cap demanded I grow as a handler. "Learn patience" he said "learn how to handle me or this isn't going to work out between us." I learned. I got better, I had to change... we did well at trials. Ultimately it didn't work out between us but there were 4 years or so of me working really hard to be the handler and trainer Cap needed to be successful. Actually... to be the PERSON Cap needed.
Cap is now with a student. Novice. Wonderful man. Kind, gentle and soft. Just the person Cap needs... But now Cap is demanding something from my student. Something completely different. Cap is demanding my student step up and take charge. Be in control and take responsibility for what is going on during working and training sessions. Cap is demanding my student learn and grow. To be the PERSON Cap needs now to be successful. We all bring something different to the table and, depending on the dog, our own holes will show up. And our holes will be different with each dog. One dog will demand many different things from many different people.
Don't lose sight of the incredible gift these dogs present... it isn't all about training, trialing, and the like. These dogs and what we do provide an incredible opportunity to grow as people. If we don't catch and hold that, in my opinion, we have lost the best part of our time with them.
I think control is a myth.
A client came over one day for a lesson and proudly told me "I taught my dog to sit." I thought "isn't that interesting," and asked, "is it possible, do you think, that your dog already knew how to sit and has actually known how to sit for quite some time now?" My client looked at me like I am a lunatic... not uncommon for me.... :)
I suggested he had put a word to an already known behavior and then requested the dog perform that behavior when he said the word. Requested. Given the dog's excellent, giving, and, biddable nature, the dog had agreed to put it's butt on the ground when he said sit.
I try to remember that when I'm beginning to ask a dog to lie down at hand with the eventual goal of a solid down when the dog is 500 yards away. I can't make that happen. My dog has to agree. There is a lot of work and effort that goes into that agreement but it is an agreement none the less.
This requires a lot of discipline and self awareness...
Commands should sound like great ideas. Not so much our corrections. I work hard at not giving a command with a corrective tone.
They should also be calibrated with what we want. If we want a small flank we should ask for a small flank. a big open flank? ask for a big open flank. The dog's job is to give us what we ask for. it is our job to make sure we ask for what we want. I'm surprised at how many folks use the exact same tone and articulation for a flank regardless of the intent.
Again, Time. And a bit more about Wyatt.
I worked Wyatt this evening as the sun was setting. A bit of shedding, some holding, lining sheep out, at hand work if you like. He was brilliant. Looked great, thinking, listening, feeling... everything one could ask for in a young dog.
It made me think back to how difficult Wyatt has been to train. What a gigantic pain in the ass. Amazing levels of frustration, huge doubt, and incredible wonder at how difficult it has been to convey a message or concept to him. It has been a long hard road to this point.
And that made me wonder. Perhaps I started Wyatt too soon. We began formal training at 12 months after a few false starts which began at 8 months.
Perhaps... perhaps if I had waited until Wyatt was 18 months or 2 years old and given his brain a bit more time to catch up with his body, the actual training time would have been the same as a "normal, not so difficult dog." Perhaps it wouldn't have been so difficult or frustrating. For either of us.
I'll not know for Wyatt but I'll damn sure pay better attention with my next "difficult" pup.
Are we coaching or correcting?
Is my dog working with me? Giving me something when I speak to him? (even the smallest something?) Seeming to try to understand and attempt my suggestions?
If so, I'm coaching.
I'll talk a dog through tough spots, leave him alone to figure things out, allow him to make decisions, encourage him when he is right and suggest he try something different when he is wrong. We may not have solved the challenge of the day but we will have built trust and our relationship will be better and we'll have another layer of foundation for our work tomorrow. In the beginning so much of what we do isn't about accomplishing something but more about building teamwork that facilitates accomplishing something. I often put my students in situations I know they won't be successful in but I also know allows for them to learn to communicate. I don't care if they accomplish the task. It isn't important. I want them to learn to talk and trust each other.
At hand. At hand. At hand. At hand. Did I mention this, for the most part, to be done at hand? :)
If not, I'm correcting.
I'm just attempting to get a dog's mind in the right place so I can start coaching. The effort starts before we get on the field. If my dog's mind isn't in the right place there is no point in attempting actual work or learning.
Process will get us the Prize...
Sometimes our minds will search for a release from pressure a task brings to bear so we will unconsciously seek out a distraction, voices of spectators in this case, to release or alleviate the pressure of the moment. When doing well we will sometimes, unconsciously, make an error bad enough to take ourselves out of the running to relieve or release the pressure completely. It is an undermining escape.
To compete well, regardless of the sport, we have to learn how to manage pressure and nerves and make them work for us. This goes back to focusing on the process, not the prize. I worked very hard with my marksmanship students in this arena.
I haven't been training other people and their dogs for very long... maybe 6 years. But I've learned a few things.
1. I can't make a dog work.
2. I can't make a handler listen.
3. I can't make either of them try.
4. As long as a handler is committed, I'm committed.
5. If a dog won't quit, I won't quit.
6. As long as a dog is trying to figure things out I'll give it all day.
7. If we pound the crap out of the fundamentals and build a solid foundation, all the hard stuff becomes easy.
8. Most people don't want to work that hard on their foundation and fundamentals.
9. You get what you train for. (I knew this already)
10. Most importantly, I have so much more to learn.
Are We Ready to Trial?
While we are in the heat of the trial season... a thought occurred... if we can't reliably send our dog 150 yards or so and have them bring us sheep in a workmanlike fashion we might be trialing our dog too soon. In any class, Novice, Ranch, Pro-Nov... It may well not be ready. Not only can it be hard on sheep but a trial or two gone bad can undue weeks of training.
All the yelling and such...
There was a dog on the hillside about 450 yards away just a moment ago. I had to get binoculars to tell which one it was.
It was Wyatt with his head buried in deep grass looking for something. So I tried an experiment to see how loud I had to say his name to get a recall. Normal conversation voice didn't work but the next level of volume, perhaps speaking to someone across the room 20 feet away, had him picking his head out of the grass and looking for me. A quick "that'll do" at the same volume level and he was on his way back to the house.
Yet we scream at our dogs with our whistles as they round the post or at the pen...