In pouring rain and with thunder crashing, Carew keeps perfect control of her sheep.

Long Distance Motivation

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.

Sheepdog and handler standing at the entrance to the trials field
Carew looks for her sheep at the rain-soaked Mathon sheepdog trial. (Click image to enlarge it).

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?

Sheepdogs Carew and Kay at Mathon Sheepdog Trials
We arrived early at Mathon Local Novice trial to find the sheep still grazing the field. Here Carew and Kay are having a "comfort break" before the start. (Click image to enlarge).

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.

Sheepdog and handler with the sheep settled and well balanced between them.
Carew's ability to keep her sheep calm makes her a potential trials winner, but she must learn to keep them moving in the outfield. (Click image to enlarge).

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.

Cars and competitors at Bromsberrow Heath sheepdog trials
Bromsberrow Heath sheepdog trial is very popular. Here competitors chat in the sunshine while they wait for their turn. (Click any image to enlarge 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").

Wide picture of a sheepdog trials ground on  fairly steep, undulating ground.
The course at Bromsberrow Heath Sheepdog Trial is fairly steep and undulating. (Click any image to enlarge it).

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.

Sheep running around the outside of the pen at Bromsberrow Heath sheepdog trials.
One of the unusual features of Bromsberrow Heath sheepdog trial is the pen which is on a fairly steep slope. Note the sheep running around the outside. (Click any image to enlarge it).

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.

sheep grazing a field before the sheepdog trial begins
Sheep grazing the course before the Local Novice trial begins on a very warm July evening. (Click image to enlarge).

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.

Sheep running out of a shedding ring because the dog's too close
The sheep at Mathon SDT were fine if the dog kept well back. Here, the sheep are leaving the shedding ring because the dog's putting too much pressure on them. (Click image to enlarge it).

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.

In pouring rain, Carew separates the sheep perfectly at Mathon Sheep Dog Trials.
My best shed ever, with the best dog I've ever had, but on other parts of the sheepdog trials course, Carew needs to keep better contact with her sheep. (Click any image to enlarge it).

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.

Typical scene at the pen in a sheepdog trial with the dog and handler in control of calm sheep.
So near yet so far! The sheep were calm and settled. All looked set for a good pen, but we ran out of time! (Click any image to enlarge it).

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.

The sheep run around the outside of the fetch gates at Mathon sheepdog trials.
It was obvious that Kay was still tired from her run the previous evening when she failed to take her commands and the sheep missed the fetch gates. (Click any image to enlarge it).

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!

A sheepdog showing confidence while working sheep

Oh, me of little faith!

Or, if you're a sheepdog trainer, practice what you preach!
A lovely picture of sheep with the sun behind them on a summers day
It's difficult to update the blog regularly in summer because so much is happenening. (Click any image to enlarge it).

They say the road to hell is paved with good intentions, and we've been very much aware recently that our regular readers will be wondering why no new blogs have appeared. For this I apologise. I've been intending to write a blog for several weeks now but there's so much I want to write that the task has become ever more daunting as time's gone bye - and consequently been put off (further compounding the problem).

Summer is always a very busy time of year anyway. With the longer, drier and warmer days, it's an excellent time to catch up with maintenance work. Although "catch up with" is perhaps a little ambitious. "Tackle the most desperate" maintenance work might have been more accurate. It's an ideal time for training sheepdogs too (something I'm doing far too little of recently). What with making new sheepdog training tutorials, running our sheepdog training days and countless other tasks I've somehow burdened myself with, time and energy seem to be in short supply at the moment.

I had resolved to keep you posted with our sheepdog trials exploits though - and this is where I now have so much news, I'm going to have to give you a taster of the situation as it is and what's to come, and then try to keep up to date with future trials - beginning with Evesham on the ninth and tenth of August.

Anyone who's read my previous trials blogs this year will realise that the biggest problem throughout has been handler error (me). For their part, Carew and Kay have mostly shown great promise, but Kay seems to get tired before her run's over (especially on hot days) and Carew's presented me with all manner of problems with her outrun and then with her general ability to push the sheep hard enough to keep them going round the course without stopping. I accept that my handling has been below par but I'm working on it.

Tricolor sheepdog looking over its shoulder
Kay's not as young as she was. She gets tired on bigger trials grounds. (Click any image to enlarge it).

Kay's problem is probably age related (mine too, I suspect). She's on the wrong side of seven years old and clearly slowing down at home even when she's out with the other dogs. She used to run and run for long periods but more recently has taken herself off to lie down somewhere to quietly watch the action rather than join in. I'm trying to get her fitter, but even that's not so easy during a heatwave like the one we're currently experiencing. Unfortunately, I'm not one of those who regards high humidity and temperatures as "glorious weather" - on the contrary, I find it an effort to do anything much during the day (he whined). For me anything over about twenty-three degrees celcius is oppressive.

Carew's lack of "push" at trials is very puzzling because at home, when faced with stubborn sheep Carew's in her element. Given a little encouragement, if I'm not too far away she'll face even the most stubborn ewe with a lamb - and as I've said more than once already, Carew's the best sheepdog I've ever had. So what's going wrong?

Close up of a sheep's head in the foreground with a sheepdog in the long grass behind it.
Carew's work is outstanding when she's close to me. (Click any image to enlarge it).

Note that I said "if I'm not too far away". At the top of the field (sometimes several hundred yards away) Carew sticks. Often she'll stick towards the end of her outrun, and even if she doesn't, it can take her an embarrassingly long time to "lift" her sheep once she gets to them. So she loses points. Once the sheep start to move down the fetch, she's too willing to let them stop again (losing still more points). Sheep learn very quickly and if they sense they can boss the dog they will, and while I wouldn't say the sheep can boss her, Carew's sheep in trials seem more than willing to "give her the runaround."

At Clun Valley sheepdog trial in June, I set Carew up on my right (to indicate to her that she was to go in the "Away" direction) and I quietly told her to "look" for her sheep. Of course, I'd already attempted to get her to see her sheep in the runs immediately prior to her own, so now as she looked up the field, the moment she appeared to spot the sheep, I gave the "Away" command.

To my astonishment, Carew shot to the left in front of me, running at full speed up the field in the "Come bye" direction. She'd crossed the course (a serious offence in sheepdog trials) the instant she set off. It was a few moments before I could believe my eyes, but then I desperately tried to correct her with "away" whistles and voice commands. For some reason, she took this as an indication that I wanted her to run straight up the field, so she did. Straight as a die, through the fetch gates, before opening up just enough to go around the sheep.

I signalled to the judge that I was retiring, and began to walk towards the exhaust pen so that Carew could take her sheep off the course but to my further acute embarrassment, she began one of her all too familiar sticking routines. Once more taking what seemed an age to move the sheep at all. At last they began to walk and I decided to try to salvage at least some of my shattered pride by trying to get her to bring the sheep down the field tidily. Imagine my relief when Carew immediately rose to the occasion and brought the sheep quietly down through the fetch gates and then into the exhaust pen in an exemplary manner - it was one of the best fetches I saw all day!

Despite this late consolation I was crestfallen. I'd rather not run in sheepdog trials at all if this was going to happen regularly. A dog which fails so comprehensively is no fun! As I drove home, I confess the thought of giving up trialling altogether crossed my mind, but then I remembered a story my father used to tell.

Coming from a wealthy family, all my father wanted to do was farming and when he left school at a very early age, he was apprenticed to a well know gentleman farmer near Kidderminster. He recalled that on his first day at work, a cold damp winter's morning, he was allocated lime spreading as his first task.

A man riding a horse out through the front door of a stately home.
Always one for a dare, my father rode this horse into the house, up the stairs, down again and out through the front door! (Click any image to enlarge it).

Long before tractors were invented, in those days lime came as a very heavy, sticky, clay-like substance that was delivered to the farm and then distributed by horse and cart in regular piles across the whole field. At some later stage, men would come with forks and spades to dig the lime out of the heaps and spread it thinly on the ground.

It was a job to be avoided if you possibly could. Poor dad was sent out to a huge field by himself and spent the entire morning digging the hateful material out of the piles in which it had solidified. He then had to expend even more energy shaking and scraping every spadeful to part it from the spade or fork. Often it fell as a solid, sticky lump and had to be chopped into smaller lumps - sticking to the tools and his boots, once more. It was the very devil of a job for anyone unfortunate enough to experience it but for a young apprentice, barely more than a child, and working alone that way, it was a truly miserable experience.

Dad did his very best though. My father was a very strong man (later playing rugby for Kidderminster for seventeen years). He recalled that by lunchtime he was proud of both the quantity spread and the uniform quality of his spreading.

In those days it was customary for all the farm workers to sit down for lunch in the farmhouse. During the meal Mr Williamson would ask each worker in turn how they were progressing with their tasks, allocating new ones where appropriate.

When he asked "young Harry Nickless" for his report, Dad enthusiastically said he'd learned how to spread lime rather well - and wondered whether this afternoon he might learn something new.

"Oh yes, of course," replied the farmer. "Now that you've learned to make a good job of lime spreading, I'd like you to go back to the field and learn to stick at it!"

I'm very much aware that I urge others to believe in their dog and never give up with it. This story brought it home to me that just because I've had some embarrassing times with Carew on the trials field, it's no reason to give up on her trials career altogether. Once she has the sheep moving, as long as I can urge her to keep them going, her control of them is the best of any dog I've owned or worked.

After some consideration (and possibly just a tiny sulk) I decided that I must motivate Carew to keep her sheep moving when she's further away from me - but how was I going to do it?

In my next blog, I'll tell you how I went about it - and whether the method worked.

Footnote:
I mentioned that my father came from a wealthy family. Unfortunately, most of his share of the estate disappeared down the "gents" lavatory at the Button Oak pub near Bewdley and on Cheltenham and other race courses! (Ho-hum)!

Border collie sheepdog and stock dog training