Date: Wed, 15 Feb. 2006
Freeway continues to amaze me in his herding progress. Last week I was looking at a herding trial, then I decided I was crazy for considering it. After our last practice session it looks a lot less crazy. I'm still not going to enter, but now it is because I just don't feel like spending the time and money at the moment.
When we arrived for herding practice my instructor told me that the sheep were fairly light, and very fresh. She asked me if I wanted to work them, add some "heavier" sheep, or use a different bunch in one of the other pens.
"Light" sheep are those that tend to run. Sheep herding is about "pressure." Think of the dog approaching the sheep as a person blowing on a sheet of paper. At a distance the paper might barely move, but as you get closer the paper starts to waver, then lift and blow away. Light paper moves sooner than heavy paper. If you don't want the paper to blow away you reduce the amount of blowing - either blow more softly or move further away - that is "pressure." The more the sheep react to the dog, the more pressure there is from the dog. "Heavy" sheep are less concerned about the dog so the dog can be closer or more active without disturbing the sheep.
One of the interesting things about herding is how the behavior of a flock changes depending upon which sheep are in the flock and how many sheep are in the flock. My instructor has a couple of sheep that the others trust. If the trusted sheep don't run from the dog, the others take the hint. So if a dog is working too closely putting in a trusting sheep or two gives the handler the room to teach the dog without having the sheep take off. Freeway has mostly been trained on very heavy sheep.
I don't know what made me do it, maybe the thoughts of the trial I had decided not to go to, but I decided to take Freeway in on the sheep just as they were. He really did a nice job. They did indeed try to take off a couple of times, but Freeway swung out away from them, brought them back, and then stayed back once they had returned to me.
The oddest sensation with Freeway is walking in "fetch" mode. That is where the person leads, then come the sheep, then the dog brings up the rear. Tsuki gets bored when the sheep are walking so he tries to stir them up by getting closer than they want. Freeway is perfectly comfortable strolling along behind the sheep. And that is exactly what he does. He casually sniffs and walks along looking for all the world like he isn't paying attention to the sheep. This will cost us points in competition, but I don't plan on trying to change it. It is very easy on the sheep and more to the point, he really is paying attention. If one sheep tries to take off he suddenly comes on alert and sprints over to "cover" the escape. It doesn't take too many times for the sheep to realize it is just easier to stick with me.
Whether the casual approach will continue working as we get to more and more reactive (light) sheep I don't know. But the fact that it worked with the light group I was working was what was so interesting about the lesson. That is another interesting thing about sheep herding. There is a lot of dynamic going on between the dog and the sheep at some very subtle levels. Freeway is a lot easier to work than Tsuki because the sheep react less to Freeway. Same distance, same speed, but for Freeway the sheep are more settled.
Anyway I tried a trial pattern with Freeway and he did just great. He even did a good job when a dog outside the pasture rushed the fence, sending the sheep scattering. He swept out just the way he should, got his sheep back together, brought them to the same point on the fence and held them there briefly for me. So I think I'll make a target for sometime in June or July to enter him in a trial. It should be fun.
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