Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Our First Herding Lesson

On Friday, Stella and I went to our first training session for herding.

The day started out cold, and got colder. When I got over to the training facility, the wind had picked up and continued to get stronger and colder the entire time we were there. Fortunately, my friend Robin was there with her Border Collie, so I had someone I could chat with and who would tell me some of what was going on.

Having trained dogs in agility, conformation, and obedience before, I am not a newcomer to the dog training thing, but herding is much different because you aren't just getting your dog to do what you want it to do, you are trying to get the dog to get the stock to do something, and not knowing exactly how the stock is going to react to the pressure from your dog makes the whole task that much more interesting. I've been working on some basics with Stella, but also worry about unintentionally letting her get into a bad habbit or two since she does chores with me every day, and there are only so many animals I can keep my eye on at any given moment. I was looking forward to also hearing an independent assessment of what the potential talent of Stella might be, as well as (hopefully) reassurance that I am not trying to stuff too much learning into the brain of a nine month old puppy.

Robin's dog went in with the trainer to do some pen work and to do some preliminary herding with the very dog-broke sheep used for beginners. Then the trainer worked with some of the not-currently-working-on-a-farm dogs. These are dogs that are a part of the "herding group" in AKC shows who could better be described as doing a sort of "dog dressage" than herding. Most of these breeds have been selected to conform more to the breed standards for appearance and have lost a tremendous amount of the instinct and brains they were originally bred for. The trainer I am working with is one of the few who will work with these (usually) retired show ring veterans, but she feels that there is value to giving these dogs something to keep their minds active. The most interesting to watch were the Briards since they have a very unique way of working with the sheep. The short of it is that Border Collies, Aussies, and Cattle Dogs basically keep their livestock in a ball. Briards were meant to bring livestock to market down one side of country lanes, which meant keeping the livestock in a somewhat narrow line. So, they run up to the front of the livestock, then circle back to run to the end of the group, keeping everyone moving and to one side of the road. They tended to work hundreds of head at a time, and are fairly large energetic dogs. The two we watched appear to have retained the instinct to spin, which looks kind of funny when applied to just three sheep at a time.

I took Stella into the 100 x 100 sheep arena and let her off leash with the trainer to see what she would do. Off she ran to the sheep, racing around, splitting a couple of them off, then dashing after them to get them back with the flock. She gathered them around the trainer and responded very well to the trainer's pressure cues and commands. Fortunately, Stella does not try to grip the sheep, so there were no mishaps there, and I think Stella was thrilled to have stock in front of her that would readily respond to her pressure. After several minutes in with the sheep, I was asked to call Stella, and back to me she flew. Good session, now for a bit of a break while others are working their dogs, and then another session in a bit.

You know that high pitched yip a dog makes when you accidentally step on it? Stella makes that noise continuously when she is excitedly watching other dogs working sheep. It is not pleasant to listen to, or easy to stop.

Finally, it was our turn to go back in with the sheep, and I was to try to get Stella to work on keeping the sheep around me, making a bigger or smaller circle, going faster or slower, and changing direction, using just body language and pressure, like you do with a horse you are working in the round pen. However, the sheep were more interested in following the trainer than in being around me, so we switched to just driving the sheep up and back along one fence.

The trainer also gave me a new command to use with Stella, as well as replacing a command I had been using (easy) with a softer (steady) one. Of course, when I needed to use "steady", all I could think was "easy-- no wait, that's not right, what the heck am I supposed to say?!", and that would be right when I could see that Stella was about to explode with a burst of energy and go running after the sheep. Border Collies are very fast, and stopping a young one can be tough once they get their feet under them. One time when she made the sheep split into a group of two and three, she was thinking of going after the three, caught my eye, I pointed her towards the two, said "gather 'em" and she took the direction perfectly. I was keeping my voice low and calm, but that didn't always keep her calm. Still, lots of errors made on my part, especially with giving commands just a second too late, and not being able to read the sheep as well as my goats. We did get the sheep into one corner, and partially back before calling it a day, so there was some measure of success.

The trainer did say that she was impressed with how obedient Stella was, and that she should be a good farm dog. The little competative voice in the back of my mind said "What? You don't think this is the next international champion trial dog?!?", but I had to remind that voice that we already have enough to do with all of the goat showing.
Besides, Stella is here because I need the help with moving goats. Robin also said she thought Stella was doing very well for her first lesson and for being so young.

So our homework is to work on our downs being faster, letting the break away member of the herd back into the group once their head is pointed in the right direction (Stella does like to go after the errant runaway, but then tries to continually head it off from joining the group- I need to stop her from trying to head so much in that situation), and slowing down her "walk up". I wasn't sure that I got a difinitive answer about how much training I should be trying to put on a dog this young, but Stella does not seem to be getting frustrated, and appears to want to keep going (and going and going).

I have to say, I LOVE having a smart dog.

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