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 Chickening Out - Engaging a handler

Date: 2004-03-02

Well I chickened out of running him myself on the Started A course in ASCA. But I think he can do it with a competent handler. My instructor, bless her, thinks I should to it myself. I knew she would. But she did agree to run him. Now I figure that each lesson up to the date of trial she'll spend trying to change my mind. I like that, but I'd really like to just get that take pen over with. And that's the only problem I have with running him myself.

The take pen is a very small pen where the sheep are waiting. And you and the dog are supposed to *take* the sheep out of the pen to start the course. On other courses the sheep are "set" out in the open in the arena. Last year we got a qualifying score on the B course but it only has a re-pen, putting the sheep in the pen at the end of the run. So we did OK. Not too bad considering it was our first (and only) ASCA trial.

The next day was the A course with the take pen. The trial sheep are light light light. They take one look at Tsuki and start bouncing around like ping pong balls. He's not alone, they do that with a lot of the dogs. But it really takes some handling skills to get those sheep out of the pen without the dog running into overdrive trying to control ballistic sheep. I called our run after about ohh.... maybe a minute, possibly two minutes. With the sheep running around like maniacs Tsuki ended up doing more chasing than herding. It's a sort of feedback loop. If the sheep stay calm, Tsuki stays calm, if the sheep freak out Tsuki gets excited and pushes harder to control them. A little handling skill goes a long way in breaking that loop.

My instructor warned me that if she succeeded then I'd have to move him up to open the next day. Ha ha I already thought of that. I won't be trialing the next day. Not out of chickenness but because on the following Monday I'll be at a herding clinic 4.5 hours more southerly. And I'm just not committed enough to do 3 days of long drives in a row.

Today's lesson, and the last several, have convinced me we are both ready to step back into trialing (except for that wicked take pen). His ability to "cover" (notice when the sheep are drifting the wrong way and head them off) is vastly improved. Also his general tendency to turn his brain off is much reduced. He's done some really nice calm work lately. Now if only I could blow his whistles while I'm actually working the sheep. His response to the whistles is way better than voice.

I really love herding with him, even if we never trial. I love the interaction. I love watching him think. I love his smile. He can get a very businesslike look on his face as he concentrates on paying attention to what the sheep are doing while trying to figure out what we are asking of him.

There is a lot of finesse involved in pushing sheep through a chute or into a pen. Just a single step in one direction or another makes all the difference. Patience makes a huge difference. Sometimes you just stand there with the dog putting the slightest amount of pressure (i.e. making them notice him) so that they decide to move away from it, but not bolt for the backcountry. If the sheep are getting nervous just stopping and standing the dog can make them settle down. Or of one splits off. Instead of sending the dog to force it back you can back the dog off just enough to let the remaining sheep know they aren't going anywhere but give the loner an opening to rejoin the flock. Usually that works.

I guess one of the things I find so interesting is the recognition of how much success depends upon the nature of the dog. Dogs working strictly on obedience, commands given by the handler, can succeed on some kinds of sheep at the lower levels. But when you have light range ewes (nervous type sheep that tend to run and jump) the DOG has to do most of the work of actually figuring out how to control the sheep. Things just move too fast for commands to be of much use. And today we watched as Tsuki went to recover a wayward sheep, then he corrected his own course to widen it out further from the sheep with the result that it came back calmly rather than at a dead run. He is figuring out that backing off sometimes gets him more control than working close.



Diane Blackman





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