Sunday, August 11, 2013

July 2013 Part I: A Trial, a Clinic, and a Lesson

Fetch Gate Farm Trial – Independence Day

The last weekend in June, I’d signed up for a Tom Wilson clinic at Windcroft Farm in Pennsylvania. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to attend this clinic, but I had two more opportunities to see Tommy in quick succession. He judged the Fetch Gate trial over Independence Day (a Thursday), and then gave a clinic at Fetch Gate the following Monday and Tuesday.

As I prepared to drive up to New York the day of the trial, I entertained the idea of not going. My heart really wasn’t in it. But I made myself go, knowing that once I was there, I’d probably feel much better, and reminding myself it was only a one-day trial and I could leave after running Dot.

I did feel better once I got to the trial field. Roger and Heather Millen of Fetch Gate Farm have a good sized field next to their house where we can safely let the dogs off leash so I arrived early to get my dogs out and let them stretch their legs before the Novice handlers’ meeting, which was at 6:15. There was a slight change to the course this year because they’d just had a tremendous amount of rain, and the bottom of the field still had some standing water. The pen was moved more into the field and closer to the drive panels to get it out of the standing water. They also rotated it so that the gate now swung open toward the back of the field, which meant the line from the outside edge of the drive panel to the pen would be down one side of the pen, and the sheep would have to be turned to their right to go into the pen. Because the line distance from the drive panels to the pen was fairly short, this made penning a little more tricky than usual; the line had to be just right. This added small challenge suited me just fine, because the sheep are normally not too difficult to pen at Fetch Gate. At the handlers’ meeting, Tom recommended stopping the sheep between the panels and the pen to ensure we had enough time to get to the pen and get it opened. Fetch panels were not set up for the Novice or Pro-Novice classes. The turn at the post was clockwise, and after the drive panels we turned left (out of the field) to go to the pen. Novice was to have four minutes and Pro-Novice five.

Dare was the second dog to run. I’d been sure I would send her left because that’s just generally her better side, plus the pressure on that field is to the right, and I thought it might make her tighter anyway. But at our lesson the day before, her outrun to the right was better than her first outrun to the left. I thought a bit about whether to send her right, but ended up sending her left anyway. She went out very tight, which was disappointing. However, the rest of the run was very nice, and I was really pleased with her! Outrun 17, Lift 8, Fetch 18, Drive 18, Pen 10. Total 71 (of 80 possible) and 2nd place! J

Seamus was second to last. I sent him left, and he went out well. As he started to come into the vicinity of the sheep, he lied himself down! I was happily surprised (okay--stunned might be the word)! He had stopped himself short, at about 10 or 11 o’clock, but a free lie down from him on his outrun or lift is worth ANY point deduction! I let him lie there to see if he would get himself up, partly because I was in NO hurry to get him back up immediately after a lie down, and partly because it would have cost an additional point deduction. He lied there and looked at me, and I waited perhaps 10 or 15 seconds, and he didn’t get up, so I gave him a come-bye whistle, and he took it. He came on to the sheep; not as nice as he knows how, but better than he would have if he hadn’t stopped at all…but that was about the last willing stop he gave me. The rest of the course was a too fast, stopping-too-late kind of thing. We got through the drive panels, and I flanked him away to turn the sheep out of the field. He flanked, the sheep turned to their left as I needed, and I looked towards the pen to see where I was going and because the footing wasn’t very good. I looked back up and Seamus had changed direction to a come-bye flank and was now already at about 8 o’clock around them!!! Somehow I managed to get him to stop and flank away and turn them back down the field, but one sheep popped back through the panels. They came on to the pen in a hurry, and I think we still might have managed a pen if he’d stopped when I asked him to as they got to the pen. But he didn’t stop, and the sheep reversed and went behind the pen, breaking the plane at the back corner of the gate, and stopping there. That’s always a dilemma in penning. It is usually better to bring them back up the side of the pen to the opening in the direction you wanted them to come from in the first place, because the handler can use the gate itself and their body for a chance at blocking them. Pushing them the other direction around the pen means the handler has to get out of the way, open the gate as wide as possible to make it inviting for the sheep to go in the mouth of the pen and ensure the dog gets around them quickly enough to keep them from continuing back up the other side past the mouth. As I tried to quickly evaluate my situation, I thought it might be easier to do it the “wrong” way. We’d already lost our points for going “around” the pen (breaking the plane), and flanking him away-to-me to try to catch them and turn them, then flip him back come-bye to push them into the pen seemed like it was going to jigger him up even more, and just having him do one big flank to the away seemed like it would be smoother. Since these sheep are usually pretty happy to go in the pen, I thought that this would work, and it did. With the exception of the free lie down that Seamus offered at the top of his outrun, it didn’t feel like a very smooth run, and it wasn’t. Nevertheless, his score was good enough for 4th place. Outrun 17, Lift 9, Fetch 15, Drive 8, Pen 5. Total 54.

Pro-Novice was a considerably larger class than Novice had been; after several no-shows and scratches, 34 dogs went to the post. We ran about 10 dogs down the order. The course was the same as for Novice, with the setout and drive panels moved back. I sent Dot to the left, and she started out well. I had some hope that she wasn’t going to go out to the fence line, but she did eventually get that wide. I was relieved that she didn’t stay on the fence the entire time and run the whole field. She started to come in, but each time she glanced in at the sheep, she kicked herself wider again, heading up directly up the field to the back fence all the way at the top. At that point, I knew I had to do something and not worry about points, as we were going to lose tons of points anyway for the outrun. So I stopped her and got her to come up on them, but although she was very deep, she really wasn’t far enough around to where she needed to be. I ended up flanking her a few times; she didn’t take the last one but I remembered that Scott had cautioned me to allow her to get to their heads, and since they were facing that direction, I left her alone. She lifted them nicely (as always!) and straight on line for a perfect lift. I didn’t have as good a fetch as I would have liked, but over all it was a very nice run; the outrun was where we took the biggest hit. Outrun 10, Lift 10, Fetch 17, Drive 17, Pen 10. Total: 64. Considering the large class and the scores I saw on the board when I looked about halfway through the class, I thought if we even placed at all we’d be down at the bottom of the class. I was surprised when our 64 held up for 5th place!

Good doggies: Seamus, Dot, and Dare.

 Tom Wilson clinic at Fetch Gate Farm

After the weekend, during which Fetch Gate ran the Open classes, we went back up to Virgil, New York. I had one spot at this clinic, and we worked twice each day. I worked Dot once, but since it’s Seamus I need the most help with, he got to work three times. Seems unfair that the dogs who behave best work least, while the dogs who are naughty get “rewarded” by working the sheep most often.

Seamus and I both improved through the three sessions we worked. Tommy had an interesting way of helping us understand very clearly whether our lines were straight or whether our dogs’ flanks were appropriately shaped. As he pointed out, when driving (or fetching) randomly through a field, it is not as obvious as when we set ourselves specific targets. He set out set traffic cones in two lines, forming a large rectangle, and had us aim to bring our sheep between certain cones. It made it very easy to see whether the lines were straight, or whether a dog was flanking with an appropriate shape. In our first session, I could barely control Seamus at all, never mind getting straight lines or good flanks. He pointed out that I need to step up my insistence at getting better pace, or a lie down, if I ask for it. He really preferred that I improve the pace and thoughtfulness rather than depending on the lie down (as do I!), but also if I asked for a lie down, to ensure I get it. It was hard to stop telling him to lie down, I admit! Tom talked about using a long line (even though he is not a fan of using one) to help enforce pace. He also showed me a way of having Seamus drive along a fence line so that I could be off to the side and control Seamus’s pace the same way controlled the sheep. It was hard for me to get the hang of that but I think I understood better at the end.

With Dot, his approach to her work on her wide outrun was to have her walk up on the sheep first, then ask her to flank, as a “lollipop” shaped outrun, in principle similar to something I’ve worked on with Gene (though mostly we have done it partway through her outrun, as described in my June blog). As usual, all else with Dot was lovely.

Michael Gallagher Lesson at Kerales Farm

Just a few days later we had a lesson with Michael Gallagher. He was available for private lessons one day, or a clinic over the weekend, which unfortunately I was unable to attend due to my work schedule. We had only an hour for him to see and get to know me and the dogs, but I think he got a very good grasp on my struggles with Seamus and what I wanted to improve with Dot. Michael was able to see that although Seamus lacked respect as I walked him to the field, and as I worked him, he really is not a hard dog and in fact is rather sensitive. This is something I’m aware of but find it tricky to get the responses I require without getting him panicked. Michael’s sensible advice was to keep things much closer and insist on the stops if I need them, and address the way Seamus behaves as we walk to the field—a recurring theme for us!

Seamus seems to go through stages where he’s polite, but then regressing back to nearly dragging me out to the sheep. In the years that I’ve been involved with dogs, I’ve learned that a lot of a dog’s respect has to do with the expectations of them at home. One of the things that’s made it so difficult to get the right attitude from Seamus is that he is very easy and very polite at home. If his attitude is already good at home, what more can I ask of him? A friend of mine mentioned that well-known sheepdog handler and breeder Viv Billingham says she does not allow most of her dogs to live in the house with her, especially not males, in order to keep their attitudes in the right place (my words). This wouldn’t be practical in my situation, but I have cut back quite a bit on petting and talking to him, and have totally stopped cuddling him, and I’m raising my expectations of his responses to my commands at home even further. I admit I hate to do it because he’s always been respectful at home, but something has to change, so I’m going to try this and hope that it makes our relationship that much more solid and trustworthy in the long run. Since I’ve started doing that, he has worked better at our lessons. I’ve also kept him in much closer so as to more easily get the response I need from him. I’d entered Seamus in the Fetch Gate Novice trial and in the Leatherstocking trial, but pulled him from those right away. I would much rather just concentrate on adjusting his attitude at home rather than really ingraining a habit of him getting totally worked up at trials. He’s still young and I’d rather have the long-term good dog with whom I can go further, rather than constantly scramble around a Novice-Novice course.

I worked Dot second and although by then we didn’t have a lot of time, Michael could see the potential for her to go too wide on her outruns. His advice was quite similar to what Tommy had suggested; walk her up a bit to engage her on the sheep, then send her. He also pointed out how bad my timing was. J As we did a little drive away, with his help I was able to see a big difference.

After my lesson, he brought out his ##Cap to use as he worked with another person, so I could see Cap work. Cap is every bit as nice a dog as I expected, though starting to show the wear and tear of age here and there. I really appreciated being able to see Cap work in person. Tierney Graham was also there, and she was very friendly, too. I’m glad to have met both Tierney and Michael.

Me and Cap. I'm hoping some of the luck of the Irish will rub off on me. J