Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Snowbirds On the Border - Overview Recap

Putting on a sheepdog trial is a major undertaking. When it is a five day trial with a total of nearly 250 runs over the five days it is even more daunting. Jennifer and Ron pull it off extremely well each year. This year was no exception.

Like a Broadway show to the audience it all appears seemless from the front of the curtain. Behind the scenes, however, it is a different story. Production meetings and discussions precede the trial by several months. In fact the trial has now been over for only two days and I am sure that preliminary planning for next year is already underway. Serious preparations are well under way by mid summer.

Great thought and planning goes into each aspect and it shows in the end result. The last month or so is sheer madness. Coordinating travel schedules with a judge, arranging to bring in nearly 500 range lamb ewes, setting the course, bringing in 500 sheep, pasturing and feeding 500 sheep for over a week, lining up set out crews, lining up kitchen assistants, lining up scribes, etc. And all of this is done during the hectic holiday season.

Then on opening day there are always glitches. Sometimes minor - sometimes major. The thing is - unless you are part of the work crew - you would have no idea there were any glitches at all. That is because Jennifer and her crew do such a great job of making sure the glitches all get taken care of behind the curtain so to speak.

So - as usual - the Snowbirds trial came off seemingly without a hitch. At least any glitches that did occur were kept safely behind the curtain. Thank Yous go to many people but especially to Jennifer and Ron Ewers for hosting and organizing the whole thing, to Dianne Deal for judging (and also for her encouraging comments - more later), Jennifer's family for keeping things going behind the scenes, the set out crew, the volunteers for exhaust, the volunteer scribes, Tricia Guidry for keeping things running and many more.

As for my own trial experience I was generally pleased with how my dogs performed given how little I have been able to work them the last few months. More on that in a separate post.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Back In The Saddle

After a layoff of nearly three months due to a variety of factors (including moving to a new house) I FINALLY got back on the training field with Piper and Rylee this past Saturday at Canines N Ewe.

I was not really sure what to expect from the dogs after such a long layoff but pretty much they both gave me about where we left off. True to their differences in personality, Piper would not take her eyes off the sheep from the moment we arrived and literally quivered with anticipation before being sent on her first outrun. Rylee was quite happy to be sent on an outrun but still did not want to come to my feet while working - at one point even deciding that the open back of the truck was a good place to go during a work session - at least until I dragged her out and back to work.

Sent on her first outrun Piper launched from my feet and went nice and wide. But when she started to come in a bit early I had to give her a bend out whistle. Since it was the first serious whistle she had been given in nearly three months I was a little apprehensive whether it would have any impact but she bent out nicely. Amazingly she even took my stop at the top and when the sheep came off line on the fetch she gave a nice wide covering flank when whistled on the fetch. But - just when I was about to comment that she was paying more attention than before the layoff - she decided to blow me off on some driving directions. A slight discussion and she was a little better the next time out.

Rylee started out a bit indifferently in close work but did some nice enthusiastic outruns. She even drove OK once we got the sheep around my feet,. She still does not like coming to my feet with the sheep though. She does not seem intimidated by any livestock but seems intimidated by coming to me on the field.

I could not have found two more opposite dogs in working personality. Piper does everything at 100 mph and Rylee always acts as if she simply does not want to make any mistakes. One needs constant tapping of the brakes and the other needs a foot on the accelerator.

But mainly it was just good to be back out with friends and working dogs,

Friday, September 9, 2011

The List

I keep a mental list.

It is a list of the handler and dog teams I would like to beat.

The List is not formal and there are as many ways to make the lists as their are people on the list.

Some names on the List make it because they are a good measuring stick, some because they are friends and fun to compete against, and some because they have done something over the years to p*** me off for one reason or the other. So for the most part, I won't reveal who is on the list, But here are some of the ways you can make the List:

1. Be a good friend (the friendly competition angle);
2. Be a mentor (wouldn't we all really like to be able to beat our mentors at least on rare occasions - the measuring stick (high end) approach;
3. Be someone I train regularly with (really these people pretty much all fall into category 1 and/or 2 already);
4. Be someone I consider a peer level (again with the measuring stick);
5. Patti Sowell - ok this one falls into categories 1 and 4 also - but Patti gets special mention because we have a standing $1 bet whenever we run at the same trial - it adds a little spice and fun;
5. Be someone with an overly inflated opinion of their (and/or their dog's) ability (this is one of the bad ways to make the list and a reason not to give names);
6. Be a jerk (the a**hole reason - see reason not to give names);
7. Alasdair MacRae - I have only met him a couple times and he has always been very nice to me and a true gentleman but really who in sheepdog trialing would not love to beat Alasdair and one his dogs just once (kind of like the weekend golfer beating Tiger Woods in his prime - you know it is not going to happen but you can dream - right - and if it ever does happen what a story, "there was this one trial, Alasdair was running Spot and I was running . . .") (OK - Alasdair is mainly there for an attempt at humor but I really would like to beat him if we are ever running at the same trial - just not likely)

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Hitting the Mute Button

At our last lesson Jennifer hit the mute button and forbid me from yelling at Piper during our lower field driving drills.

It was for at least two reasons - one - we were trying to avoid upsetting Rylee who is sensitive to commotion in general and - two - it is important that I learn to rely on the whistles and get Piper to pay attention to them.

The result was probably the best extended driving session that Piper and I have experienced together. Last weekend - while Jennifer was out betting on the ponies at Del Mar - we continued with the mute button working at Anna Guthrie's. I worked Piper for an extended period in Anna's covered arena concentrating on solely using whistles and not using any voice commands whatsoever. If she did not take the whistle command the first time I simply took a step in her direction so she would know I was serious. Once again it was one of our best sessions for properly paced straight driving and Piper was definitely paying much more attention to my whistles.

As Candy Kennedy observed in a recent blog I think I had gotten into the habit of blowing the whistle and expecting to follow up with a shouted "Lie Down". Piper, in turn, had gotten into the habit of not believing the lie down whistle meant lie down until she heard the angry yell. So this is a habit I have to break and I think hitting the mute button on my shouts is a good start. Next I want to work on toning down the whistles so they don't sound as shrill.

With Rylee I worked on some confidence builders and simulating actual ranch type tasks. It seemed to help.

First, I sent Rylee to gather the approx 125 sheep spread out grazing in a mid size field so that we could sort out a working group. It was wonderful to watch her thinking as all I did was give a simple "away" command and watch her figure out what was needed to get the whole group together. Left to her own devices Rylee had the whole group trotting comfortably to me in a well grouped flock. Then we gate pushed them into a small catch pen and gate sorted about ten ewes off from the group to work with.

From there I had Rylee take the working group down the driveway from one pen to the covered arena where I worked Piper. I also gave Rylee a single session in the arena trying to get her to whistles and flanking without losing contact. We did a bit of driving, also, making sure Rylee would come by my feet. After working Piper I had Rylee finish with a few minutes working the small group back in the catch pen before turning them out to rejoin their friends in the grazing pasture.

A good day and I think valuable for our progress.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Outrun for show, Drill for Dough

There is a saying among golfers "Drive for show, put for dough".

Roughly translated it means that the drive is for showing off and fun but it is the short game and putting that makes you a winner. In statistical terms to make par on a standard par 72 course there are 18 drives (or 25%) and 36 puts (50%). Yet if you go by any golf course you will see a crowd on the driving range and relatively few on the putting green. Why ? Well, it's much easier and more glamorous to brag about your 300 yard drives off the tee than to brag about consistently sinking 6 foot putts. It's more fun, too !

So what does any of this have to do with sheepdog trials ?

The outrun is only worth 20 points out of a typical 110 points (18%) in an Open run. Yes a bad outrun can set the tone for a bad run - but then so can a golf drive into the trees instead of down the fairway. Yet how many conversations do we have with other sheepdog trialers where we talk about how far our dog can go on an outrun. Our how often do we judge trials based on the length of the outrun.

To be honest it is fun to send your dog on a big outrun - I love watching Piper go off on a 6 or 7 hundred yard outrun - somehow it makes me happy to be able to say she can do a huge outrun. But the reality is that most trials are NOT 600 yard plus outruns. Two hundred to four hundred yards seems a much more common length. In the past year I have only had to send Piper 600 + yards at 2 trials.

There are 90 points remaining after the outrun. And while those elements may not be as glamorous as the outrun they are at least as - if not more - important. But the only way to get them done properly is to drill, drill, and then drill some more. It is not as glamorous or as much fun but it is definitely what we need to do more often. So we are going to try to concentrate more on the less glamorous aspects and put in the time necessary to get the other elements down. Especially the drive.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

The Sheep Get A Plan

Ever wonder what would happen if someone slipped the sheep an effective battle plan. Well we found out yesterday.

After doing drills in the lower field - look below for more - we moved to the upper field to do some outrun, lift, fetch and drive back work. Jennifer had Leon bring out four Rambouillets - the same ones that behaved so well at the Ewers Last Chance Trial. Well apparently they spent the last two weeks studying Sun Tzu's classic "The Art of War" or taking night school classes in effective battle tactics because these four sheep had a plan - and it worked.

The basic plan was to wait till the dog got past 9 o'clock and then break hard to the handlers left and the safety of the poolhouse. If they all made it then great. Subway sandwiches were definitely in play yesterday for pretty much all of the dogs.

If the sheep did not make the safety of the poolhouse as a group they activated Plan B. Plan B proved to be an ingenious sheep plan almost guaranteed to frustrate Border Collies. In Plan B the sheep sent an advance scout - who came to be known as Blue But - because of the blue chalk marking on her but - ahead to lure the Border Collie off the main group. Blue But would go forward and down the hill pulling off line forcing the Border Collies to cover while the rest of the group stayed behind in the safe Border Collie Free Zone of the hill. Once Blue But had pulled the Border Collies far enough away the rest of the group would make a break for it requiring the Border Collie to leave Blue But to stop the rest of the group from escaping. This, of course, meant Blue But could finish her escape. As sheep tactics go - it was brilliant - far more effective than the usual "let's flock together and stay in a tight little group where one dog can keep us together" strategy.

Although this strategy helped the sheep make it a true contest the Border Collies ultimately were up to the task and nobody had to buy Subway sandwiches.

Her first go Rylee figured the strategy out nicely and stopped way short of high noon to block the planned escape. Unfortunately as she was walking in the set out dog helped the sheep escape and it was off to the poolhouse. Given time to sort it out, however, Rylee soon had a very reluctant group of four sheep trotting back from the poolhouse to the practice field with Rylee providing incentive from behind. Given her recent lack of enthusiasm it was very nice work and I was very happy with her.

Piper started her top field work with a very difficult task. A couple dogs before Ron and Jessie had put Blue But in the isolation pen because she was getting difficult to handle and some of the less seasoned dogs were running. Before doing an outrun we tasked Piper with taking Blue But out of the pen and back up to join the sorority at the top. So - take an unruly single out - and push it 150 yards or so up a hill where it did not want to go. The task started ok and then Blue But made an escape in the general area of the poolhouse. I am not sure exactly what happened over there out of sight but apparently Piper gave Blue But an instruction in the ways of the world and dog sovereignty over sheep because pretty soon Blue But was coming back one step at a time with Piper calmly pushing Blue But where Piper wanted. It was very nice work on a tough single.

Piper's outrun was nice and her lift pretty good and then the sheep tried Plan A - all run like hell together. It did not work as Piper covered nicely. So the sheep tried Plan B - send the advance team to draw Piper off so the rest can escape. That did not work either as Piper was on it. I was very pleased with her work.

Now back to the beginning. We started with drills in the lower field. This was very good as we need more of this. Rylee went first so we could ramp up her enthusiasm. ANd it worked. Rylee was circling with the sheep against the fence and taking directions nicely all the while keeping up her speed and not disengaging.

Then Piper for driving drills in the lower field. Instructions - no voice - absolutely no yelling - and if she needs a correction take a step toward her. Two purposes - get Piper serious - and avoid upsetting Rylee. I believe it was the best flanking and driving drill we have ever had together. I know it was the longest we have gone without hearing Jennifer offer correction. And when we finished and I got back to the rest of the group Piper got a well deserved good job from Jennifer. This is a method that works and I need to stick to it to build trust with Piper.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Why Can't We Be Friends ?

The title of this post is from a 1970's era song by a band called War.

Used here it is a question to Rylee.

Rylee is a talented dog who is simply overly cautious for her own good. When working away from me she works very well and has a number of good attributes. Evidence of this is she scored a 30 at the recent Nursery Trial timing out on the FETCH. So she was almost perfect at the top (Judge gave her 1 pity point on the fetch).

We have seen her work in difficult situations and she does not seem intimidated by the sheep. She is cautious but not generally intimidated (except apparently by me).

What she does not like to do is bring the feet completely to my feet. Instead of getting better the problem actually has gotten worse over the last two months or so.

I have wondered about the reasons - did it have anything to do with her being in heat - probably not ? Have I been too harsh ?

Well - last Saturday we tried working on it in the lower field against a fence. Rylee was still avoiding coming in by mine so Jennifer came out to work her. Instant change. Rylee was far from perfect but she was showing some more enthusiasm. Half - and only half - jokingly - Jennifer suggested Rylee just doesn't like me.

As a handler this is certainly possible even though she sure likes to follow me around and cuddle off the field. We think some of it is she does not react well when I am harsh with Piper so I deliberately tried to tone down my tone of voice with Piper for the rest of the day. Also we deliberately worked Rylee first in rotation so she would not hear me interact with Piper.

It seemed to work as Rylee's fetches were with much greater pace than they had been recently. She even busted in on the sheep and made a mess a couple times. Joy to my eyes with Rylee. And - wonder of wonders - she made the turn around me and came right by my feet to start a drive. Closer than she has ever been willing to come to start a drive before.

So the plan for now is to work Rylee in situations that can give her success and for me to be as upbeat as I can with her. She is also getting extra attention and play time at home.

Rylee is a sensitive soul who needs to be properly wooed apparently. We need to apply the velvet glove to get her confidence and enthusiasm back up. I am certainly willing to accept some Rylee created messes on the field through enthusiasm. It will be much easier to clean those up than to have her shut down.

Rylee, why can't we be friends ?