How to keep Carew's work fluid at long distances?
Many years ago, I asked a regular prominent member of the Welsh sheepdog trials team for advice on what to do with a dog that sticks on its outrun. "Sell it," came the blunt reply.
I was shocked at the time. I hadn't realised how difficult it is to train a dog to keep going once it's got into the habit of stopping before it reaches the point of balance behind the sheep.
It's comparatively easy to train a dog that's close to you but as the distance between you increases, body language, hand signals and even voice and whistle commands have an ever decreasing effect on the trainee. Unless it's supremely confident (in which case the problem wouldn't exist) the farther away the dog works from its handler, the less secure it will feel. So it's likely to revert to its instinct rather than follow the commands of a pack leader who's nowhere near the scene.
"How can HE know what's going on..?"
"He's not up here at the sharp end!"
Another very well known handler told me to run up the field waving a stick and shouting at the dog to make it continue it's outrun. I tried it, and all I managed to do was make myself really tired, and the poor dog even less confident than it was before.
In the years since this happened, I've realised that if the dog's sticking on its outrun, it's clearly lacking confidence. Running up the field in an aggressive, threatening manner is hardly likely to build a dog's confidence, is it?
Improving the dog's work when it's a long way from you can be extremely challenging - especially when the problem's been going on for some time. It will have become a habit for the dog. In other words, "this is how we do it. I stop on my outrun to assess the sheep (best to be on the safe side) and then when I'm good and ready I nip around behind them and take them back to my handler".
As I mentioned in my last blog, Carew's been stopping on her outrun and she's hesitant when taking her sheep around the trials course.
When she first started to work sheep, I marvelled at her willingness to stay back off her sheep. It means she doesn't upset them. This, combined with her power when confronted with aggressive sheep make her an ideal farm dog, but for trials, she clearly needs to display more drive and keep in closer touch with her sheep.
After considering the various options (including retiring Carew from sheepdog trials altogether) I decided that I should practice what I preach. If anyone's going to have the resolve to at least try, to change Carew's attitude when working sheep (and this is really what's required here) it must surely be the sheepdog trainer who urges others not to give up on their dog. In other words, me.
At the moment, once she picks up her sheep, if Carew will keep them moving, she can be a formidable dog on the trials field - especially with flighty sheep which need very gently treatment. So my personal challenge is to iron out this stickiness by motivating her to work fluidly (not stopping on her outrun) and push the sheep harder when required.
It's a tall order of course, but I'm hopeful that I can do it.
Whenever I have a sheepdog training problem that's proving difficult to rectify, I find the best plan is to go back several stages in the dog's training - even reverting to the training ring if required.
I'll go back even further if I need to. Sometimes putting the dog on a lead and walking it around when we take the all the dogs out for their twice-daily run. With all its friends running around freely, the dog on the lead doesn't like this severe restriction of privileges at all - but it's very effective indeed for re-establishing your authority over the dog.
In Carew's case, the only way I could think of to improve the flow and pace of her work when she's working a long way off, was to change her whole perception of the speed and power I want her to use in her everyday work, so recently, whenever she's worked the sheep I've made a point of giving her every encouragement to work enthusiastically.
As well as giving lots of enthusiastic vocal encouragement, I make shushing and hissing noises, clap my hands, and over the last few days a loud "Brrrr" sound seems the be the most effective. (The sort of excited sound you might hear in some Latin American songs like "La Bamba").
This often results in Carew bringing the sheep too fast but I try not to correct or stop her unless I really need to. She's got an excellent "Stop" - let's just concentrate on the "Go-go-go" for the time being!
It seems to be working too. At Bromsberrow Heath Sheepdog Trial on the sixteenth of July, I was delighted when Carew didn't stop on her outrun. She lost four points for veering-in before she reached her sheep, but she realised her error and widened out again once she spotted them. As this was her first run on a fairly steep undulating field, I feel it's not a problem. Now that she knows where the sheep are, she'll hopefully do better in future trials on the same ground.
A number of dogs were struggling to lift the sheep at Bromsberrow Heath because there was a mineral supplement bucket at the peg to encourage the sheep to stay there until the dog arrived. Once the sheep got their heads firmly in there, they were reluctant to move, but Carew shifted her charges in an acceptable time and lost only one point for her "Lift". This may have been chance - she lost a whopping eight points on the fetch even though the sheep went through the gates, partly because they went off line but as I recall, they stopped a couple of times too. It was an improvement over her recent trial performances though, and looked promising.
Two days later, I ran Kay and Carew in the (very hot and humid) Mathon Local Novice Trial (near Malvern). I was worried about Carew's outrun here because if you send the dog left, the sheep have a tendency to run back to the letting out pen. If you send it to the right, the dog has to go up under some dark overhanging trees. Dogs seem more likely to stop in dark places like this, but in fact Carew went well. I whistled-her-on twice (losing a point for each occasion) and the second whistle cost us dear, because Carew flanked a little too far and the sheep began to run to the right of the ground (just as they do if the dog approaches from the left) instead of straight down the fetch. She lost three of her points for the outrun, and two for the lift - not great, but another improvement because in the event, the extra whistles had been unnecessary.
Unfortunately, one of the sheep in Carew's bunch was somewhat wayward! Try as she might, it kept going off line, so the run was spoiled by that. I'm not one to complain about the sheep at a sheepdog trial, because I feel that tricky sheep make it more interesting. Sheep which trot round like little robots are boring, whereas (within reason) the more "trying" can be a great test of the dog's resolve - as long as the sheep are the same for everyone. In the past, Mathon has had a reputation for difficult sheep - probably because they're brought in from a farm several miles away, just for the occasion. Sheep like to be settled.
At this year's Mathon event though, the sheep were generally excellent. If the dog was calm, well disciplined but firm, the sheep would behave well, but if the dog was too pushy or erratic, they'd be very difficult. This is how sheepdog trials should be - but there appeared to be just one sheep in the bunch that came out of the holding pen prancing and bucking like a mule - and poor old Carew got that one.
We saw the same sheep in someone else's run the following day and they struggled with it too. It's just the luck of the draw. Carew dealt very well with it, and managed to "catch" all the gates, but we ran out of time at the pen and the best we could manage was fifth place - nothing to shout about as there were only ten runners but the most important thing for me was that once again, Carew seemed to be more responsive.
Kay on the other hand, managed second place with a super run, but just as with Carew's run, we were timed out at the pen. The judge remarked to me that if we'd penned the sheep we would have won easily! Never mind. To me the performance of the dogs is most important - but of course, a prize is always very welcome too. It's such a pity that I didn't start running Kay in sheepdog trials until she was getting older.
The following day was the Open Trial at Mathon, where some of the top handlers in the world compete. As I've mentioned in previous blogs, there's normally a substantial gathering of spectators on the day because there's a local dog show on the ground too, but this year, the judge was not available, so the dog show was not there. The weather was completely different too. Heavy rain with thunder and lightning at times.
As usual, I ran Carew before Kay. For some reason, "prima donna" Carew takes offence if I run Kay first and her performance suffers in the trial. I'm working on this because it's not a good situation, but compared to Carew's other problems, it's hardly significant.
The run before Carew's didn't start when it should because the handler was worried about his dog's reaction to the thunder, so the judge asked me whether I wanted to run Carew a little early. I was confident she wouldn't mind the crashing and banging, so off we went.
I'm very proud of the way Carew worked in heavy rain with flashing and crashing going on - totally focussed on her sheep and obeying my every command. It wasn't perfect, of course, but I was happy with everything she did on the run. Nearly all points lost were my fault not hers.
We lost two points for the outrun (she may have been a tad tight at the top of the field as she approached the sheep) four for the lift (because I was a little too eager to keep her moving and she approached them too quickly) and just one point off the fetch. With the thunder, lightning and heavy rain, it was a joy to see the sheep come straight down through the centre of the gates without wavering.
We lost seven on the drive even though all the sheep went through both gates. Sadly, the man in charge of the whistle misread the sheep and got his timing slightly wrong, not to mention bringing the sheep too far down the course on the crossdrive.
Then when it came to the shed it was simply excellent. Dog and man worked together patiently in the rain, keeping the sheep in place whilst they gently applied pressure at the right point to part two from the five. Carew came through immediately, turning on the two to hold them away from the rest. The best shed I have ever done - with no points lost!
The pen was looking the same too. Carew and I were perfectly placed and just as the sheep were looking certain to go in, I heard the judge call "time". TEN points lost!
Never mind, Carew had been wonderful. Clearly her best run to date, even though we didn't complete it. I'm certain that given another fifteen to thirty seconds those sheep would have gone into the pen (they were ready) and Carew would have had an excellent score for a novice dog.
Unfortunately, Kay's run didn't go so well. The heat and stress of her run the previous evening at Mathon had clearly taken its toll. Kay was visibly tired on her run, failing to take her commands on the fetch, so the sheep missed the gates, I retired before the sheep reached the first drive gates.
Now, as we look forward to Evesham Sheepdog Trials on the ninth and tenth of August, I'm still working on Carew to build her confidence at the top of the field. I'm not pretending we've solved the problem of her hesitating up there, but the signs are encouraging, in fact I hope I'm not overdoing it!