Friday, December 2, 2011

The Balloon

We are not restrained by the fear of mortality when we are young. We drink deeper of life, our entire being open to experience and to trying and to feeling. When I look back at risks I took in my youth I think we are born with nine lives. We use up eight of them in our teens and early twenties. How else to explain surviving the daring adventures of youth? Then one day we are standing at the top of a steep and icy slope, skis on and body ready, and realize we are down to the last life. One mistake and it is the end of our ride. We push off down the slope but now our experience has the taint of restriction. Where once our whole being was dedicated to living, now a part of us is given to surviving. Surely I still had some lives left the day I followed the balloon.

I must have been about 14 years old. It was a hot summer day relaxing into a warm summer evening. A soft roaring sound above the house brought me out onto the deck to see a hot air balloon floating by. The sound that alerted me was the flame used to heat the gas in the balloon and keep it aloft. I ran out into the yard to follow but quickly lost sight of the balloon as the woods surrounded me. Following the direction of the balloon I ran up the road to the stable where I kept my horse, Fundi. The barn there was surrounded with open fields offering a better chance of spotting the enticing rainbow orb. From the stable the balloon could be seen drifting out over 80 rolling acres of back pasture. I ran into the barn and pulled Fundi out of his stall. I had a lead rope with snaps on both ends which I clipped to each side of his halter to use as reins. We headed for the back pasture where I jumped on and the hunt began. No time for a saddle or bridle or the balloon might get away. I was dressed as any kid on a hot evening, shorts, tee shirt and sneakers.

Fundi was a retired racehorse, a narrow bodied thoroughbred with a bit of a hot disposition. The prospect of galloping across the fields that evening was a fine dessert for his day. With a nudge from my heels we were off at a ground eating gallop, quickly closing the distance to the balloon. The day’s heat radiated from the ground in waves, soaking the cooler evening air with warmth and the strong summer scents of plants, flowers, soil and life. We moved from heat to cool to heat as we raced across high open ground, down through woods and across streams, then back to open fields. Traveling through the heavy summer air was like swimming in a lake, through sun warmed water then crossing cooler currents from the depths.

We reached the end of the pasture with the balloon still well ahead. Rather than take the time to dismount and open the back gate we went over it, never breaking from the long gallop. We continued up to the top of the ridge of Newbury’s Field, gaining good sight of the balloon. I knew the area well, land the hunt rode through. The woods were crisscrossed with trails for riding, the fields surrounded by old stone walls for jumping.

Balloon well in sight we hunted it through Busk’s field, crossing the Bemis woods to get to Red Field, then back through the woods to Busk’s again. Where our path went through the woods we kept to the trails, listening for the whoosh of the balloon, watching for glimpses of the bright colors through the canopy of trees, galloping faster to make up for our indirect route. Each time we escaped the woods, sailing over stone walls into the open fields, the balloon’s pilot would see us and we would exchange a waved greeting, saluting the chase.

Eventually the balloon floated off over land where I had no route to pursue it. I turned back down through Newbury’s and trotted to the back pasture gate. We had galloped more than a few miles and Fundi was oily with sweat. I noted how slick his back and sides were, how my legs had no purchase to keep me in place. I was utterly dependent on balance and knowing the moves of this horse so well that we made them together. I was then still immortal. I nudged his sides and we cantered home through the back pasture, relaxed and satisfied.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Sleigh Bells Ring

Tomorrow is December 1st and winter will be upon us soon. Driving home today I finally came to rest on a radio station playing Christmas carols. I refuse to listen to Christmas songs in November, defense against the Groundhog Day haze that descends when you listen to the same reshuffled fare for two full months. Almost immediately I was rewarded with my favorite Christmas song, Snoopy and the Red Baron.

Despite the unusual balmy weather I settled into thoughts of winter. Snoopy and his foe were followed by the Sleigh Ride song by the Boston Pops. You know… the one with the jingling bells and the whip crack. This brought to mind a winter day sometime in the mid 70's. It was a school day, or should have been but school was canceled thanks to a good bit of snow that had fallen overnight and continued through the morning. The roads were snow covered and perfect for a sleigh. I ran up to the barn where I kept my horse, a cheerful and energetic little chestnut named Tumnus. The folks who owned the stable had an antique cutter in the basement of the barn. I harnessed Tumnus, brought him down to the basement and hitched him to the sleigh. Off we went trotting quietly on the snow covered roads. I had some small bells I had attached to his harness that were barely audible in the hush of the storm.

Our first stop was a short ways down the road for my friend Leslie, then around the corner and up the hill for Penny. The little cutter was built for two but three teenage girls don't take much space. Being tight together was actually a great advantage as riding in a sleigh is a very cold if delightful pastime.

Tumnus trotted briskly on and we began our travels. We headed off to the center of town, Concord, MA. Concord is a lovely town that retains many of the old colonial homes, barns and buildings. The roads are narrow and on this day the snow laced trees reached over our heads. We decided to go over the Old North Bridge, site of the “shot heard round the world”. This arched wooden bridge is maintained as part of the Minuteman National Park. Traffic is not allowed but we found a way to maneuver the sleigh past the vehicle barriers and down the path to the bridge. There we were, some 200 years after that fateful shot, crossing the bridge in a small sleigh, behind a trotting horse, surrounded by the weighted hush of the storm, seeing the flakes fall against a landscape that looked much like it would have in colonial days. The timeless charm was interrupted when we had to negotiate the vehicle barriers on the far side of the bridge. These were staggered posts with not much room between them. Thank goodness this was a narrow sleigh.

From the bridge we turned right and headed into town. We trotted on past historical homes, frosted with snow, smoke coming from the chimneys. But for the cars in the driveways there was little to indicate the century. There was almost no traffic on the roads courtesy of the storm. The roads in the center of town had been plowed recently and the traffic was more significant. Fortunately the sleigh runners ran fairly well on the slush other than one point when we stopped for traffic and Tumnus had to really dig in to get the sleigh moving again. We traveled about past the shops then turned back for home some few miles away.

I do not remember our exact route. I don’t recall what we talked about or how long we were out. Given how far we traveled we must have been out for some time. I do remember highlights like the trip over the bridge, the worrisome moments negotiating the barriers, and trotting through town. What I remember so intensely that it is almost as if I am reliving that day is the feel of the ride… the hush of world, the muffled cadence of the hooves, the vault of snow covered trees, the cheerful horse, the friendship.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

If you die can we have your dogs?

I woke up yesterday eager to get on the road. I was going to visit my friends Jim and Sharon Perkins. We planned to work puppies first in a small paddock, then drive out to a big field and work the Open dogs. It was a perfect late fall New England day, clear and cool.

I arrived and got to watch Jim's pup Jag work first. Though they told me he was a little heathen the day before, there was nothing not to like on this morning… 6 months old, thoughtful, keen, and wanting to partner. Then I worked Cass, who is showing some excellent work at a mere 5 months old, and Marcus, who also worked very well. Both these pups are thinkers, partners, and plenty bold. Cass has a wonderful way of stopping in the middle of a puppy made mess, looking at the situation for a bit, figuring out a good reorganization plan and executing it. Once my two milder pups had a turn I brought out Relentless Ruth. Ruth is a very nice pup, brave, thinking, nice balance, but at 7 months she is utterly determined to push stock. She is willing to work with me when she notices me through that relentless drive to push. Getting noticed is not easy. Ruth keeps me on my toes the entire session.

The sheep we were using were big fat beasts, very people friendly. Keeping them from crowding around you and carrying you off took a bit of attention to the stock. When working Ruth I don’t have much bandwidth left for keeping sheep out of my personal space. Ruth started nicely, but she's quite pushy and the sheep decided that their best option was to push around me. They surrounded me and clumped together, trapping and lifting me. As they traveled my right leg and body went one way in the sheep vise, while my left leg was plucked the other way. Emphasis on "plucked". It felt as if my leg was plucked out of my body a good 2 inches. When I was released from the sheep vise I collapsed to the ground. Ruth, being a good gathering puppy, was bringing the sheep around again straight at me as I lay unable to move on the ground. It was a terrible thing to behold from my point of view. Thank goodness I was not alone. I was yelling to Jim and Sharon that I needed help. They were behind me and I could not see that they were already in action when I did not get up immediately. Sharon went over the fence into the pen. Ruth fortunately decided she’d rather bring the sheep to an upright handler and turned them toward Sharon before they got to me. While Sharon had Ruth balancing to her they grabbed her line and got her safely tethered. Once the sheep/puppy situation was stabilized Jim came to me, bent over to see if I was okay, and said “If you die can we have your dogs?”

I did not die, so I still have my dogs! I lay on the ground a while. Then I was able to slowly get to my feet with Jim’s help. After standing for about a minute I had to lie back down again as I was about to pass out. A bit more time on the ground and my second attempt at vertical was more successful. I hobbled out with Jim’s aid, and Sharon had ibuprofen, ice and a cane for me. Practical people with a sense of humor are the best kind of friends. At first moving the left leg was dreadful, and could only be done by tensing all the muscles so the weight of the leg did not hang from the hip. Walking was miserable and the only way to get out of my muck boot was to cut it off.

It was clear that sitting still for any period of time would bring great pain, so I decided we should continue to the big field to work the Open dogs. Any dog handler does not question my decision. We did big outruns and distant drives, never letting the sheep anywhere near me. There is nothing better than running good trained dogs after a cluster pup like the morning session.

I was far better this morning than I expected. I can walk slowly on smooth surfaces with no cane. I’ve got muscles in my left buttock and down the back of my left leg that are swollen, tensed and painful. There is a muscle inside the thigh that apparently tried to keep the original split from happening, also painful. I can lift my leg now without tensing all the muscles first. The ground is very far away, but I’m getting handy with using the cane to push things to where I can get them. There is still a bit of instability, but I figure the hip has a good blood supply so will heal quickly. I’ll get checked out by the doctor tomorrow. It is a beautiful day again and I really want to work puppies. Damn. Hopefully in a few days I’ll be more stable and can get back to training. Meanwhile I’ll go outside and see if I can somehow fill in the holes that bored Ruth dug in the back yard this morning.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Puppies, puppies, puuuuppppies...

Yesterday was all about puppies. Like the poppies in Oz, the furry little bundles of hope can produce a blissful trance.

I had some friends come down with a 6 month old pup named Jag, littermate to my Marcus. The plan was to get this little guy going around sheep as my setup is better for starting puppies. We worked pups first, then went to a big field to work the big dogs, then came back and worked pups. Jag got a turn in the puppy area, then I worked my 3 pups, then Jag got another turn. We repeated this after working big dogs so Jag got 4 turns and he certainly capitalized on his chances to progress. What a nice puppy! He is a grandson of Cato, and watching him work brought Cato to mind. This bold youngster has a smooth cast, turns out nicely on his flanks, very definite and direct on a walkup. He is quietly attentive to his sheep with beautiful small adjustments that most Open dogs can't match. He is very keen yet stays aware and responsive to the handler.

It seems to me there is this old sheepdog etiquette rule where the hostess gift is a puppy? No dice. I tried but I was not getting Jag. Such rude guests.

I'd have been more sorely jealous, but I've 3 nice pups of my own. Three pups! What, am I nuts? This has been the summer of the puppy. Ruth, 7 months old, is a brazen, talented, clever and determined youngster I got from Dwight Parker. Marcus, 6 months old and littermate to Jag, came from Caleb Parker who bred his very nice bitch to Levi. Marcus is a thinker like Jag, but works on top of his stock lacking his brother’s feel and lovely moves. Cass is from my breeding of Vesta who is a littermate to Levi. Cass is bold and quite keen at barely 5 months old, seems to have more eye than the others, lovely cast, very sensitive to the handler like her mother. I’ve spent these past months trying to raise 3 puppies, keeping them apart and spending time with each. I'm trying to get some work on all of them though they are quite young. We'll be shut down soon for winter and all my pups will come out as rude and brash teenagers in the spring. Hopefully some distant memories of nicely balancing the sheep to me will make it easier to get them rolling in the spring when they’ll be old enough to really take some good training.

I figured at least one of these pups would be a dud. But of course all three are looking very good already. All are bold. All can cast nicely around and walk up straight. All are both keen on the stock and responsive to the handler. Hmmm, with 3 fairly young Open dogs already I may have to make some tough decisions in another year or two. Meanwhile I love the early training and all three of my pups are rewarding to work with.

I still want Jag.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Look Back

Song and Levi did me proud this weekend. Both qualified for the double lift finals at the NEBCA Fall Foliage championship trial. Both dogs trusted me and went on their first gather in the direction I asked, which took them to a different part of the field than they expected sheep. Both turned back beautifully even though the lay of the field required them to turn back and commit to their line for sometime before they would see the sheep. Fortunately the second gather was near where the sheep had been placed for the qualifying rounds so that helped. Song turned beautifully on a single command like she's been doing this all her life. Levi turned well on a single command at first. As he turned the person tasked with keeping the first group from crossing the swamp moved her dog into position. Levi caught that movement and turned back to the first group to see. I stopped him and gave him a second lookback and he turned and ran a superb second gather.

I could not get a hole to split with Levi. I was getting frustrated and Levi was getting hot and confused. Finally I just called him through the packet of 8 sheep, no hole whatsoever. He came through cleanly but 5 and 3 as opposed to the 4/4 we needed. So Levi did not get a shed, thus no pen. He was 5th overall. I got a nice shed with Song. Not such a good pen. Where are my friends with the tranquilizer dart gun when I need it at the pen? We got it done though and she was 4th.

Fina was a good girl, and would have made the cut if my other dogs had not. Dare spent the weekend tethered in the van as there were lots of specators and folks around and we were keeping all the cash in a drawer in my van. Dare is friendly as can be with me there, but won't let folks in if I'm not. His job was to watch the cash.

I'm very pleased with my pack.

Friday, September 30, 2011

They are dogs

"For a dog it is all about quality, not quantity. All a dog wants is another great day. When there are no more great days it is time."

Almost 2 years ago now I said goodbye to Cato. He'd escaped the yard and been hit by a car right in front of my house on the way home. He was Houdini in winter when there was no work. He'd get bored. He'd pull up fences from the bottom and dig under, jump, climb, whatever was necessary. He'd go visiting then come home. I live on a very busy road so this was a source of constant worry for me.

Cato was alive, laying in the road. Two drivers, one in each direction, parked their cars across the road to block traffic. I took him to the emergency clinic. He was there overnight, and came home the next afternoon on lots of pain killers. Thoracic x-rays showed no troubles, but clearly he was not right. So we continued the meds and waited, not quite a week. Clearly he was not okay and not getting better. I drove him down to Tufts Foster Animal Hospital late one night when I knew there was more to his condition than bruising. I discussed the situation with the intake vet. There would be no neurologist till morning, and that was what was needed. The assumption was that there was damage to one or more of the vertebrae in his neck. We discussed options for examination, and treatments and prognosis if this were the case. There was a very good chance that Cato would not be able to return to a normal active life. I emphasized to the vet that whatever we found, my decisions would be based on the quality of the life he could expect after treatment. If he could not be returned to an active lifestyle then I would not pursue treatment. They would use x-ray and/or MRI to look at the vertebrae. I instructed them to use the x-ray first, and if that told the story we would not need to go to the MRI. I do my best to take good care of my dogs, but I’m not wealthy. I already had spent $2,000 for Cato at the emergency clinic. Having lived with him for the week since the accident I had a hollow feeling that there were no good options.

I left Cato there and went home for the rest of a miserable night. The next morning I waited frantically for news from Tufts once the neurologist was able to look at the case. They called me to let me know they were sedating him for the MRI. I asked about the x-ray, which was supposed to happen first. He would need to be sedated for a good neck x-ray as well. I was pretty much at the end of my emotional rope at this point, when the vet explained that they needed the MRI and were scheduled for it and he had to go in now, despite their not having taken an x-ray. I was not in a rational frame of mind to argue further.

The MRI showed that the atlas, the first vertebra connecting the skull to the spinal column, was knocked out of place, the worst location for trauma to the neck. Still no x-ray. We began to discuss treatment options, primarily putting the atlas back in place surgically. Putting the vertebra back in place was high risk, the trauma might kill him immediately and could well leave him on a respirator for a few days. There was a risk he would not start breathing again. More importantly, the repair would be forever fragile. They emphasized that he could live a “normal life” but their definition of normal was no work and no running and jumping. I said that was not sufficient quality of life to justify treatment. They stalled on any decisions as they were making some inquiries on other treatment options.

A while later that morning we spoke again. The x-ray confirmed the diagnosis, which meant we could have done the x-ray and never spent the $1,000+ on the MRI. They had researched an option of realigning the vertebra manually with no surgery required. They were eager to go forward with this option. The problem was the repair would be just as fragile as if they had done it surgically, meaning no quality of life for Cato. I would put him through this just to spend his final years locked up. His life would be hell. This was a dog that always wanted to be in the middle of life. He was both mentally and physically exuberant.

I told them I would not pursue the treatment. They seemed taken aback, and indeed worked hard to persuade me to have him treated. I was emotionally exhausted. I’d given in to their urgent last minute arguments on the MRI, frantic for Cato’s welfare at the time. I was not going to give in to putting Cato through the treatment to live his life as a prisoner, always locked up, watching the other dogs, never again to work or play or run freely, consumed with frustration. They countered me, and implied that I was unwilling to spend the resources on a dog just because he could not work for me again. My contact kept bringing up “just because he can’t work”. I’d already told them he was retired from trialing. I still used him for some farm work despite having other fully trained dogs, because for Cato the work was his life. And did they really think that when not working he’d be happy to just trot around the yard, never allowed to run full out with joyful abandon?

There was no question in my mind about the right decision for Cato’s welfare. I do not believe in “life at all cost”. Breathing is not living. I was direct and eventually my contact accepted this. I drove down to be with Cato for the end, and returned with his body to my vet to be cremated. Cato was a huge part of my life. He took me from novice to the National Finals to the World Trial. When I was clueless he persisted on the right course. He forgave constant errors and upsets on my part. He slept in my bed every night.

We had many, many great days together.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

The Finals

Well I did it. I traveled out west to run on the famous range ewes at the national finals. I only had one dog qualified, Fina, who is prone to mental lockups under pressure on big courses. Nothing ventured, nothing learned.

It turns out Fina manages the range girls tremendously, but as suspected she had trouble keeping her head together on the bigger course with some pressure. She had a "Fina Melt" twice. She basically tunes me out and just moves the sheep, which is an improvement as she used to just lay down and watch the sheep leave. In between her melts she was fabulous, but her second melt involved bringing the sheep backwards on the drive some distance, losing most of our drive points. No semi finals.

I spent hours watching runs, observing how different handlers and dogs approached these sheep. The western sheep are not the fire breathing dragons I was expecting, but they are tough and fun. They are not conditioned to move off the dog, so the dog needs to be definite. It seemed to me that the dogs who came forward with no hesitation were not questioned in the end. These yearling ewes were huge, stared at the dogs and stomped their feet. They could make a formidable impression and not all dogs were willing to ignore their threats and continue forward with intent. If the dog kept coming the sheep would turn at the last moment. If the dog was hesitant and slow then the sheep stepped forward to see if they could press the dog back or just put their heads down to graze. Once the sheep were moving the dog needed to keep pressure on or they would stall, and the sheep tended to mill and squirm as they were moved so there was work involved in keeping them on a line.

All and all I had a great time. I have a sense now of the skills my dogs need to work range ewes. Mind you I'm not sure how I will be able to strengthen these skills with the tame eastern flocks I have access to. I want to go back and try again. Next time with more than one dog, and hopefully more than one trial so we have a few chances to work out managing these willful sheep on a big open course.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Wild Trial Weekend

This past weekend was the VT Championship trial held at the Quechee Scottish Festival, followed the next day by the Spring Valley trial at Steve Wetmore's farm in Strafford, VT. Of course this past weekend was also Hurricane Irene, which led to the Sunday trial at Steve's being canceled.

My two girls, Song and Fina, did well on Saturday, managing to bring in 2nd and 3rd place despite some errors in my handling. Levi ran too, but not so successfully. They tried a new layout on the field this year, with the first drive panel a ways up the field to the left, where usually it is almost directly out to the side of the post, with a long diagonal cross drive. The field is small and oddly shaped. With the new layout, you stood or fell on how well you could negotiate the first drive panel. Your dog needed to be on the inside to hold strong pressure to the setout/exhaust area on the right side of the field. Then the dog needed to flank fast to the left to get around the sheep to turn them and stop them before they made it to the setout. Many cross drive lines included scraping sheep off the setout. Levi worked this fairly well, flanking hard and fast and catching his girls before they had gotten far off our intended cross drive line. I blew a check whistle to slow him as he passed along his sheep on their run for freedom. The sheep were slowing and it was easy to turn them too hard and bring them right back down the field. As he slowed one ewe felt her chance and made a break for it. She took off for the setout, Levi running as fast as he could to get in front of her. There were people and a dog at the setout, who for a brief moment worked to discourage the incoming ewe. She accelerated. She was going over. The setout team wisely took cover and she sailed over 4 feet into the exhaust pen adjoining the setout. I went to call Levi off, when suddenly I see the ewe come sailing back out over the fence. It took some work at this point to call Levi off. I could not figure out what had happened, or why the setout folks would have tossed this girl back onto the field as if my run would be allowed to continue.

Lunch break was immediately after my run and I got the rest of the story from the pen crew. Levi had no intention of losing one of his ewes. When she flew over the fence into the pen, Levi slammed through the setout team and squeezed into the pen after her. He hammered her a couple times, then drove her back out onto the field over the same fence she came in over. Then he cleared the pen fence on his way back out to pick up his rude charge and continue. Apparently he was not going to listen to the crew up top who were trying to stop him. Fortunately he did listen to me and with repeated "that'll do" commands I was able to get him off the field.

I can just hear Darlene's chuckle on this show. She would have loved it.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Learning Theory

My friend Sharon Perkins has been reading about learning theory, and educating me with this knowledge. Some of the information seems obvious, such as regular focused practice. This builds myelin in the brain which is what allows us to perform a well learned task smoothly and well.

One topic we have discussed is failure, and how the best learning comes from working through failure and struggling to get it right. Failure should be embraced as a valuable tool for learning.

This morning I was playing with Marcus. I had a fistful of treats, my clicker, and a puppy eager to figure out how to get the food. I had taught him sit first, so it remains the first behavior he offers me. I've started working on down, first luring him down with a cookie which I release when he finally lays down while trying to pry it from my fingers. Now I'm fading the lure, and Marcus is wanting to go back to a sit. He was dancing around me, sitting, circling me, talking, barking. The low cookie lure that he used as his cue to down was not there. Finally, frustrated with my lack of response, he tried laying down. Click, cookie. Very happy pup. I realized that little Marcus had just struggled through failure. He learned far more by working this through than if I had simply placed him in a down postion.

I use the 80/20 rule of thumb for training. I want my dogs about 80 percent successful, 20 percent failure. If they are more than 80 percent successful it is time to make the job more challenging. If they are failing more than 20 percent I need to back up and make the job easier. Generally if the dog has failed completely on three tries I change the picture entirely. Sometimes I choose to work through a much higher level of failure. I do this with thought to whether there is another way I could approach the job to make the dog more successful, and whether I believe the dog and I are ready as a team to struggle through the problem.

This got me thinking about how I train on sheep. Well dogged training sheep cooperate despite sloppy work by dog and handler. They have learned the objectives and go along. With difficult sheep and challenging situations my dogs and I are faced with failure. We struggle to get the job done. Success is measured not by the pretty shape of the flank or fast response to the stop command, but by whether we got the cantankerous beasts in the trailer or not. We are utterly focused on the job, and the stock has no forgiveness for bad work. The dog learns when to be quick, when to be slow, when to flank off, when to hold close. My moves on the stock and my commands to the dog face the same ruthless filter of the stock, rewarding good timing and good work with progress in right direction, and poor work with lack of progress or retreat from our objectives. We struggle together through failure, and learn what works.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Fina Triumphs

The July 4th Cascade Farm trial was the last trial my friend Darlene Hutchins was able to attend while she was fighting cancer. That was in 2009. Darlene left me her young dog Fina. Fina and I had plenty of struggles together, but finally began making progress. The July 4th Cascade Farm trial in 2010 was our first placement together.

This year I only ran Fina one day at Cascade as I had 3 dogs to run and was judging one day. She worked like a well oiled machine, confident and responsive. I'd been in first place for some time with Song, but I was pretty sure Fina had bested that score. I was due to set sheep for the next class so I went to the top of the field before seeing the results. They radioed up that I was needed for a runoff. Indeed Fina had beaten Song by one point, and another handler had tied Fina.

The trial had a fun trio of handlers from NC, and it was one of these ladies that had tied me for first. I could not resist a North South challenge for the runoff. The judge and scribe whistled Battle Hymn of the Republic when I came to the post, and Dixie when Sherry came to the post. Much laughter was had, and Fina worked even better than the first run. However I made some mistakes, and as I did so I considered that the south had better generals than the north. Apparently I was reenacting that disparity. The quality of Fina's work carried me and we prevailed for the north.

We made Darlene proud, and even more importantly (if you knew Darlene), we made her laugh.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Balance is Hard Work

I put in some plants this morning that I got from friends. I noticed that between rain and watering the plants in my new beds are looking very good. So are the weeds. I considered planting cactus, and never watering so that the weeds would die, but of course weeds don't die, particularly in New England where there is generally plenty of precipitation. Mother Nature really makes us work to achieve balance. In this case I'll just pull the weeds and toss them on the driveway to dry up, then toss them back in the garden. I guess balance in a garden is mostly just work, pulling the weeds that grow when you water the flowers.

Late last summer I got access to a large tract of new grazing area. I grazed it all fall, and again for several weeks early summer this year. I am now realizing that I don't have enough sheep to keep all my grazing under control, particularly during the fast early season growth. So my grazing areas are overgrowing, not allowing the clover to flourish, and actually providing less nutrition for my sheep. That pesky balance challenge again. Balance on my pastures is as much a thinking challenge as manual labor, monitoring the fields, maybe mowing, and maybe just not using some of them if I can't keep them under control. Sometimes more is not better.

Balance is important on sheepdogs both in training and genetics. I know someone who both breeds and trains for very direct dogs, lovely work behind the stock, walking in strong, meeting a challenge if necessary, excellent pace and small adjustments. But when the sheep bolt off to the side or down the field they don't have much for flanks. Training for flanks is likely to take something away from the superb direct work. It is always harder to achieve balance, the dog that can walk in straight and strong, make minor corrections, and then run clean and fast to the heads if needed to cover.

Years back I did Schutzhund training with Dare. Observing the dogs, I realized they could focus much more towards the extremes than in breeding and training stock dogs. The quiet and controlled work in Schutzhund is always close at hand and under command. A good stock dog needs powerful drive to work all day, an overwhelming desire to control the stock tempered with a willingness to partner with man. This partnership needs to be so strong that the dog willingly obeys a faint whistle from a distant handler, even when that whistle may override the dog's instinct. Talk about balance.

Balance is hard work. Often in training we need to back off in working on one skill because we are encroaching on another skill in a negative way. So we work back and forth as needed to build our dogs so that they come to the post well accomplished in a variety of skills, performed in a variety of situations, sometimes done independently, and sometimes performed at our command in conflict with what their instinct tells them.

Balance is hard work. But it is a very rewarding journey.

Friday, June 17, 2011

The Last Hosta

I finally finished planting the assortment of plants that had been sitting around in flats and small pots. These included impatiens in paper cups from the Sunday school kids, marigolds and petunias I had purchased because they are so wonderfully durable and colorful, some other flats that were pretty but I could not tell you what they are, and one small hosta in a pot. I don't recall where the hosta came from, but there it was among the flowers. I bought all the flats last week and have been hard pressed to keep them watered and happy. The flowers from the church and the hosta have been waiting for weeks, though I did manage to get some of them planted in May.

First I filled my big water trough planter with petunias. As I began pulling out the weeds to prepare, my activity caught Ruth's eye. She is enamored of her newfound ability to jump and climb and promptly launched herself into the planter to grab at the weeds I was pulling. After tossing her out several times I gave up and put her in a crate in the house, where she proceeded to bark and wail for the next hour. However, I was able to quickly fill my planter with petunias, then surround it with an X-pen so they can get established before she has access again.

Once done with my planter I decided to put some petunias among the day lillies beside the front dog kennels. This is when I first saw the devastation. Three big clumps of colorful lillies live in this bed, the first of which was utterly destroyed. Leaves trampled and chewed, stem with bud bitten clean through. The next clump of lillies also sustained significant damage, but beside the total devastation of the first it seemed minimal. I had noticed that Ruth was climbing through the hog panels that surround this area. It is good to be so small you can slip through where even larger pups cannot. Damn. Well I'm sure the lilly will survive, but I doubt I'll get flowers this year.

I've been continuing to plant a flat or two each day. This morning I decided to finish off the last few flats and get the last few impatiens and the lone hosta taken care of. The plants have been waiting either outside of the back yard fence on the side of the house, or behind some garden fencing in the courtyard. As I finished off the planting I removed the piece of garden fencing to get some of the plants from behind it. I rescued the impatiens and planted them. Lost in my chore I did not notice the plastic clunking sounds emanating from behind the gate. I stood up after planting the last flowers I looked over the fence. Ruth and the last hosta. Pulled from its pot, pretty green and white striped leaves yanked from the root ball. The root ball and remaining leaves were being tossed gleefully about the courtyard, dirt falling away from the roots with each bounce. The hosta's life was saved when Ruth spied the escaped plastic pot, which made such a delightful sound when slammed on the rocks. I rescued the hosta and planted it with one hand while holding my pup with the other, trying to avoid the intended botanicide. Planted in an obscure nook and watered, let's hope this little hosta makes it. Meanwhile, with 2 more puppies coming, I need to rethink my garden fencing.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Looonnng Weekend

I've survived the Finality Farm trial weekend. This would have been simple if it was just the trial (a wonderful trial by the way). Open was Friday and Saturday. Saturday my van acquired a new dog named Maeve, a young dog that I'm taking as a training and socialization project. Then Saturday evening I traveled from the trial to NJ to drop off a whelping box and some supplies at Vesta's new home in preparation for her upcoming litter. I left NJ around 9:30 PM and drove to a Cabela's somewhere east of Harrisburg, PA. I crashed there around midnight, and back on the road by 6AM to Evan City, PA, near Pittsburg. There I picked up "Ruth", my marvelous new puppy. Then I drove all the way home, getting in around 11PM (puppy stops necessary along the way).

Ruth is quite a brazen little thing though Song quite quickly disabused her of the notion that big dogs are just playthings. Ruth is quite respectful now and learning to check out the big dog's body language before jumping! Whew, she was showing no fear or respect and had actually grabbed food away from the new dog.

The trial itself went well. Levi crossed on his outrun the first day. He was not focused up the field. He's not been a dog to cross, but then he has little experience and the field was not straighforward. Once crossed he came to his sheep in a direction that allowed them to bust for the barn where they wanted to go. I was very pleased with how he handled this, flanking hard to the head of one ewe who was determined to beat him, stopping and turning her, then getting the other two who were looking for a different route to freedom. He had to work back and forth a bit with some strong forward pushing but he got them back where many dogs failed. He ran early enough in the day to get the opportunity to work the sheep while they were still undogged, cantankerous, and trying to beat the dog at every turn and many of the lines. He never let up, never gave ground, jogged right into their faces, and never lost his cool. Saturday he placed 4th in a field of 70 with a nice packet of sheep, but it was the Friday run that I remember with a smile.

Fina ran later on Friday, and placed with a beautiful run despite one high headed ewe that spent the entire run trying to bust away in any direction. Fina was a machine, but was running out of stamina at the shed where she worked very hard to keep that fast and impulsive (and irritating) ewe in the shedding ring. Despite no shed her lovely work on the course got her a 4th. She gave me good work on Saturday, but not good enough to place.

I did not run Song. Her rapid approach was likely to really agitate these sheep and I could only run two dogs.

All and all it was a great weekend. The sheep were a real challenge much of Friday, beating dogs who gave any ground on flanks or hesitated to come forward. By the end of Friday the girls were finally getting somewhat broke, but still full of vitality and uncooperative opinion.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

The Tale of the Giant Sheep and Why the World has Mountains

Way, way back in the world long ago, before man walked the earth, the world was covered in snow and ice. This frozen land was walked by flocks of sheep so large they looked over the tops of trees. There were millions of these colossal animals, wandering far and wide. The giant sheep covered the frozen land like bison on the American plains before the railroads came. As the flocks traveled they followed their traditional paths, marching in columns through the deep snow, great cloven hoof after great cloven hoof trampling the snow down to solid ice. The world was cold and the snow continued to fall and each fresh snowfall was trampled to deepen the ice on these ovine passages. And as the sheep traveled they dropped manure, which was also trampled onto the traditional paths. And so it continued, with each layer of snow and each layer of manure being trampled by great cloven hoof after great cloven hoof, packed to a dense base that grew in altitude with each journey of the great beasts over the trails. The sheep were pleasing to the gods of the icy past, who provided the flocks with abundant hay so that they might flourish. The sheep, being sheep, squandered some of the hay, which fell to the trails to be trampled along with the snow and the manure, pounded down as layers by great cloven hoof after great cloven hoof, slowly building the paths higher and higher. And the snow continued to fall so that these paths built of layer upon layer of ice and hay and manure were lower than the deep snow. Indeed to step from the paths was dangerous as the sheep would sink in the softer surrounding snow. So the sheep stayed on the paths, and the paths became ridges, the ridges grew to mountains, the mountains stood tall and continued to grow to great heights. But the great heights to which the paths rose were obscured in the greater heights of the surrounding drifts.

Whether the gods of the icy past grew bored with a white earth covered with sheep, or whether they were perhaps replaced by gods who preferred a warmer climate we don’t know. But the world began to warm up. The drifts surrounding the paths began to melt, and they melted, and melted. Each day the world was lower and the paths began to rise above. And the drifts still melted and melted. It seemed the world might melt away, but finally there was earth instead of snow. Towering above the newfound soil were long ridges, some reaching greatly into the sky. The paths of the giant sheep would not melt. They were formed of ice and hay and manure, insulated and dense. The grass began to turn green and the birds sang and the world began to fill with other animals. Yet the mountainous ridges built by the sheep remained, hammered to strength by great cloven hoof after great cloven hoof, like iron forged by a smith.

The giant sheep are no more, but their ancestors remain, tiny creatures by comparison, each hardly the size of a single cloven hoof from their colossal predecessors. Though they have changed greatly in stature, their nature is the same. They continue to travel familiar paths, trampling deep snow, paving the way with manure and squandered hay, pounding it to a dense roadbed with small cloven hoof after small cloven hoof. And as each spring comes, the end to the abbreviated ice age of winter, the drifts around the paths melt. The ground is rediscovered, the grass turns green, and the great manure covered ridges remain to tell the tale of colder times.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Maybe she’s born with it…

Maybe it’s training.

Training sheepdogs is mostly about bringing out the natural style and abilities of the dog. In some cases the inherent style of the dog is not workable in some area. Perhaps the dog is tight flanking, does not cover well, etc. There are no perfect dogs. Generally if the dog’s method is effective in getting the job done without undue stress on the stock I try to work with that style. I do this because that which the dog does naturally is a much more durable behavior. When you train a dog to work in a style that is counter to a dog’s natural way of working the results are less reliable and maintaining those results is high maintenance.

My Belgian boy Dare has had a fair amount of training in protection work. Dare has what is called a ¾ bite. This means he puts his jaws well around the sleeve on the bite, but does not push his mouth on so that the item he is biting is pushed to the hinge of his jaw (deep or full bite). From a functional point of view a ¾ bite and a deep bite are equally effective. Shallow bites (just getting front teeth on) are not that effective and often indicate a tentative approach. In Schutzhund a full bite will usually get higher points than a ¾ bite. So folks breed and train for the deep bite if they are doing Schutzhund. I worked with an excellent trainer and we got a deep bite on Dare, but the trainer said that in a hard fight he would go back to his natural ¾ bite. Other aspects of his bite training were simply honing his natural style and thus would be durable under duress.

The same applies in stock work. Under pressure the default style comes out. When things are quiet and organized you can keep the dog performing the way you trained it to work. Default behaviors are not the early behaviors you see when training a pup, but rather the tendencies you see as they settle into the job. Virtually all pups are tight but by setting the situation correctly you allow them to mature into their natural style. Look at the choices a young dog makes as it faces new situations. In particular look at the choices it makes after the early attempts have not been very successful. Green dogs often try to solve things inappropriately. What tells you about the dog is what they come up with on successive attempts.

When you “train” dogs with good natural flanks to flank and outrun you are just molding what is coming from the dog. They have the priority to cover, the core initiative to control the stock. They are thinking about where they want the stock to move and how they need to be positioned to accomplish this. You provide them with opportunities to refine their skills and create situations so they can develop their instincts, learn how close or how far to be. You add commands so you can influence the work. My Levi had a great struggle to hold a single yesterday. Pretty rough work, but I know that Levi covers, has decent flanks, and is attentive to the job. Next time I expect he’ll be a little slower and/or give some more space on the flanks. Now I think of Fina. I’ve spent a lot of training time on her flanks (particularly the come by) and covering. It will always be a work in progress as her natural tendency to bear in on the flanks will always be there to erode my training. The come by flank is very high maintenance and still mediocre. Though I may get some nice come by flanks, I have not awakened Fina’s natural style, I’ve suppressed it. Thus keeping the quality of the flanks is high maintenance. On the other hand she has a lovely walk up, direct and attentive, plenty of push but aware of the stock. I spend very little training time on her coming straight onto the stock as it is a natural and durable behavior.

My Rhyme was a challenge to train but fun and rewarding as her moves were lovely and she was intensely engaged in managing her stock. This also meant that it was a battle to get Rhyme to give up the pressure. Rhyme’s current person Angie spent the entire month of March working on getting Rhyme give up the pressure side after Rhyme marched her sheep against the pressure on the drive almost to the set out at a trial. The training paid off as Rhyme took every command and placed both days her next time out. Keeping Rhyme flexible to take a flank off the pressure is a maintenance item. Another example of a strong natural behavior is my Cato shedding. At a shedding clinic with Bev Lambert the exercise was getting the dog to come through cleanly, not looking to either group until directed. With Cato’s very strong eye Bev and I agreed this was not a good use of training time for him. Yes, it could have been done, but would have taken many hours of training time and been extremely fragile. Better to look at what Cato’s natural style was (he was already starting to hold whatever sheep I was looking at) and use my training time to make his style work for me.

People keep saying that Fina is a different dog this spring. She is not. She is much improved but the nature of the dog does not change. She can do brilliant work, but the top of her outrun is naturally tight and fast and her come by flank naturally bears hard on the stock. Keeping moderation on her top and a better shape on her come by are maintenance items because I want them performed in a way that is not natural to the dog.

Add to this the brain on each dog. Some dogs thrive on trial pressure and work at their best. Others are more fragile, affected by the trial environment in a negative way. For dogs that do not relish the trial environment, that which they have learned must be very strong and well patterned for them to be able to pull it off outside their comfort zone. Those behaviors that came to the dog naturally will stand up to the pressure. Some trainers and handlers are brilliant at evaluating what their dogs can do, building on those strengths, creating clear patterns, then managing the runs so as to keep the dog where it is strong and comfortable.

How can you tell if a trained dog is naturally strong in an area or very well trained? You see the natural ability of the dog when there are challenges. Sheep that are leaning or bolting or breaking or fighting, difficult terrain, portions of trial fields where the stock and dog are out of sight all will put pressure on the dog, inviting the natural style of the dog to come out. These challenges will also point out whether the dog is a good thinker under pressure. Clouding the issue is the question of whether the dog has had any experience with things going wrong. There are some folks who train in such a controlled environment that the dogs (and handlers) have little chance to experience the adrenalin surge from things going awry.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Creative or Clueless?

I have a ewe in a headgate as she rejected her lamb. Each day I turn her loose for a bit to move around the barnyard while I clean the pen she is in. After I'm done I use a dog to bring her back into her stall. I'll usually pick up the lamb first as he is devoted to his uncaring momma and stays tight with her. She will gladly tromp right on top of him. Naturally the ewe does not much want to come back to the stall. The gate I need to get her through is right next to another open shed which she would like to duck into enroute to her prison. This second shed is a small quonset hut style metal building, with a single small lambing pen set up inside along the wall. The lambing pen creates a pocket in back so sheep that go in can get into the pocket where a dog can't well get around them. Indeed a ewe truly determined to thwart a dog can then squeeze into the narrow slot between the curved shed wall and the side of the lambing pen, which is exactly what this girl did. There she stood wedged in the narrow slot where I'm storing a couple bales of straw.

So I'm standing there with her lamb in my arms trying to figure out how to extract her. Levi, who was trying to get around her when she stuffed herself into this final tight spot, is also exploring his options. He quickly flips out around the pen to where he can be in front of her, but immediately realizes that the pen prevents him from getting close enough to move her. So he returns around the back of the pen, comes in behind her, jumps over her and lands on a bale of straw in front of her. He spins to face her and drives her out. This all happened in a matter of seconds.

How does he think of these things? I've seen Levi jump a bale of hay landing between the llama's legs to lift a ewe in tight quarters. I've seen him launch himself onto the backs of the sheep to get the front sheep moving when they hit deep snow and stalled. He has hopped into the fenceline feeders and trotted along in the metal tray when the sheep were pushed up too tightly for him to squeeze in otherwise. Do farm work with Levi and you get these fairly regular shows of very unusual work. I do not consider him to be an unusually talented dog, nor particularly bold or determined. He's plain as dirt in his work style. Yet he has this free thinking mind that is always engaged. I don't know that he'll ever be much of a trial dog. He's my best dog for most farm work despite his difficulty stopping and staying put. I just like him, like his mind, like living with him, and like doing the farm work with him. I suspect he'll stay regardless of his future as a trial dog. I don't think I could part with him.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

War Ponies

I trimmed feet on all un-bred sheep yesterday. There are 9 sheep in that little group, 6 yearlings and 3 older wethers. Song had a delightful time holding them in a corner for me so I could catch each one, flip it, trim the feet, and then mark it so I knew who was done. I was using a piece of red marking chalk that had fallen to the storage shed floor then been swept out with the leaves. I spotted the red lump sitting in some ice and decided to use it up. The chalk was fairly well saturated with water and rather crumbly so I marked up the front of their faces rather than into the fleece. The color came out extremely strong with the wet chalk, a rich red stripe up between the eyes of each animal.

This morning I went to feed and had Fina push the sheep back as always while I put out the feed. This little group was eager to dine and as I was working they came back towards me, stopping about 15 feet from Fina who was parked between us. They stood there, heads up, proudly defiant, but not quite ready to actually try to get past Fina. They were arrayed on a little knoll above me, and looked like a group of war ponies. Heads up; ears up; war paint on. About half of them are Clun mules so they even had speckled faces like Appaloosas. I almost expected them to shake their heads and snort.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Mud vs. Faux Mud

I’d like to announce that roughly 10% of my barnyard is now mud. This required close inspection to be sure that it was not the faux mud that comes from 2 inches of liquefied sheep shit on top of ice. This year I’ve tried the solution of scraping the manure into piles. On the really wet days it is quite easy as the vile slurry slides nicely on the ice. Of course with a bit more melting another layer of ice disappears and I find another inch or two of shit, again on top of a slick base of ice. It is like one of those cakes with many layers of chocolate cake and raspberry jam, except there is nothing pleasant about these layers.

Yesterday I stepped off one of the well worn and manure carpeted winter paths and sunk into snow above my knee. So I've a long ways to go before I can actually work dogs. However the weather is persistently warm and the melting continues. And I've got a couple lambs born yesterday, the first of the season. Boys, but healthy boys with a good momma who has lots of milk. They should grow up big and tasty.

Thursday, February 17, 2011


There is a section about SAR work with dogs on the bottom of this linked page (Dees Dogs/Nancy Lyon). It has a great description of developing canine partners who are persistent problem solvers. It also shows a great appreciation of the partnership, with full respect for the abilities of both parties.

Working dogs on stock has similarities to SAR work in that obedience of the dog cannot come at the price of initiative. Training dogs for these jobs is as much about developing the dog's natural instincts, problem solving skills, and most importantly the dog’s confidence in their own ability to handle the situation on their own as it is about training the dog to accept our leadership. In the end a tremendously obedient dog with limited skills and/or no confidence to apply those skills without constant direction is not a valuable partner. A dog with tremendous skills and confidence in the chosen job but of a less cooperative mind is indeed more valuable though likely frustrating to handle.

Early training on stock is all about developing a dog’s abilities. My early dogs were quite confident that they could do the job and eager to take control, certainly no lack of willingness to take initiative. I was able to focus on commands while the dogs capitalized on every opportunity to work out problems for themselves. These were dogs who naturally focused on the objectives, interpreting my commands as information about where I wanted the stock as much as instructions to execute a specific move themselves. Since then I’ve had some more sensitive dogs that have been wary of making mistakes, wanting explicit instructions, lacking the overriding initiative to control the stock. One of these dogs, my Song, was eager to take responsibility, but any correction left her worried about being wrong and reluctant to try again. Since her behavior was not egregious and the stock was not overly stressed I allowed her a large amount of freedom in early training. Eventually she matured to a point that she could recognize corrections as information from me to try another method. From that point she trained up extremely quickly. Fina, who was bounced around a bit for training and handling when young, is extremely sensitive. I have had to work harder to get Fina to take initiative and do what needs to be done to control the stock. She worries about being wrong, doubts her ability to solve problems on her own, and thinks of commands as simple instructions as to her next move. She does not naturally think in terms of objectives, where I want the stock. I’ve spent some time this winter doing farm work with her, denying her specific commands, and holding her responsible for the job. We had a few uncomfortable sessions, with her wanting to wait for specific commands and instead getting a sharp bark of her name when sheep took advantage of her. She struggled, unhappy with the lack of instruction, but she kept thinking. Then after a few rounds she began to understand. She realized she was responsible for putting the sheep somewhere and keeping them there while my back was turned and I was doing something else. She realized I had little interest in her specific moves, as long as the job got done. She got the chance to work the moves out on her own and SHE LIKED IT. This newfound sense of objectives and responsibility is fragile as she is a sensitive dog. I’ll need to be careful to foster her new abilities while reminding her that she needs to work to my objectives.

How much responsibility rests with the dog? That depends on the handler. Some folks like a dog that is infinitely and immediately biddable. I prefer a dog that will accept my objectives, but be willing to disagree with me on the method. I’ll accept non-compliance if I feel they are still working to get the job done. If I know I’m giving a command that the dog will find unwise I’ll insist by using a stronger voice or whistle. In this way I tell the dog that I am overriding their responsibility for this move.

The balance between obedience and responsibility for the stock takes work to maintain. The more we tune our dogs for the immediate compliance required in trials the more we eat away at their initiative in controlling the stock on their own. Time off from trialing with some farm work helps to keep the dogs focused on the objectives. My Cato dog was easy in this respect as no matter how much we trained it would be a cold day in hell before he relinquished control of his stock. Yet he was from the beginning willing to partner with me and allow me to define the objectives.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Fun with Farm work

My paddocks are a mess of partial lumpy paths, deep snow with a harsh crust, some ice and some small broken up trampled areas. It will be a long time before any training happens, but it is handy to have a dog to put feed out. I'm afraid my sheep think little of my opinion unless one of my canine friends is around.

The first job is keeping the girls off the feeder so I can put out some grain. Not so easy as there is 32 feet of fenceline feeder, now so full of snow I have to fill it from inside the barnyard. The barnyard is small with no room for the dog to push the sheep well off, thus leaving the flock well positioned to try to skirt the dog on either end to get to the grain. Each of my 3 dogs has worked out a different method and style of moving them back and holding them quietly. The sheep have learned that even if the dog is at the moment pushing the other side of the flock back, and they are only 20 feet from the feeder and 30 feet from the dog, they will not make it to the feeder in time.

Another job is "bale dog". I just lay the dog down beside the main bale while I disperse the hay. Talk about boring! But with no dog at the bale all sheep will converge on it while I'm spreading flakes, then when I walk back they'll all bolt off through the bale, trampling it nicely.

This morning the sheep had eaten their grain and almost all were up at the hay I'd just spread. Several had remained in the barnyard, searching for those last few bits of grain in the snow filled feeders like pigs after truffles. Levi had been a very patient "bale dog" so I decided to let him bring those girls up. A couple were ewes that will cling to the llama to try to avoid the dog. One in particular almost fuses herself to her tall friend. Some of the sheep just trotted up towards me as soon as Levi got back behind them, but these two girls ran and clutched to the llama, who was eating another bale I had waiting to be spread, all this up against the gate by the feeders. Levi came around to lift on the narrow path through the deep, crusty now. He was confronted with a broadside bale, llama tight to the bale, and ewe almost under the llama. He jumped the bale, landing between the very surprised llama's legs and nose to nose with an appalled ewe. She recoiled from Levi's shockingly rude greeting and briskly made her way up to join the rest of the flock. Eventually I stopped laughing.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Land Ho!

With 2 feet of snow in the storm yesterday I'm afraid training is completely over for winter. All that is left for the dogs is to push the sheep off so I can feed. This morning I fed the hay in the small paddock above the barnyard. I trudged through the deep snow and scattered the hay about a small area, forcing the sheep to make trails. It was fun watching them alternate from shoving through the snow to trying to jump from spot to spot. When I returned this afternoon the sheep had narrow lines between where each pile of hay had been, sort of like a giant connect-the-dots drawing.

This evening the sheep were eager for dinner so I had Levi push them ahead of me as I carried a bale out. They moved easily enough up the worn path, but then I wanted them off the trampled area so I could walk through to spread the hay. I had Levi turn them after the gate and push them off to the right. It was like grounding boats. The front girls moved into the deep snow and just stuck. I figured the flock was going no further so I had him hold them there while I spread the hay. Once done I surveyed my squat girls, bellies cradled in snow, legs nowhere to be seen. I rather wondered if I'd need to wait for high tide to get them out. I pulled the dog off and the sheep in the back ran to hay, while the front line slowly plowed their way back to the trampled areas.

I had spread some of the hay outside the trampled area to force them to expand their terrain. Some hay I put on the pristine snow between where the morning piles were. The sheep loved this arrangement as they could stand in the paths and dine on the table of snow.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Starting the New Year right

It is over 50 degrees out. It hardly feels like January. I spent a good chunk of the day out with friends working dogs. Clearly all our dogs had made their New Year resolutions as they worked very well. The sheep had made resolutions as well, something about not cooperating with the dogs and avoiding the training program all together. When we got them out of the trailer they figured they'd just dive back in, and they certainly had no interest in clambering over the plowed snow banks into the main part of the field. Song was delighted with their recalcitrance, which gave her a chance to show her stuff. The sheep were trying to take advantage of the maze provided by vehicles and snow banks, hoping to dart somewhere she could not stop them. Song was quick, determined and tenacious, getting them away from the vehicles and up to the bank we needed them to go over. They were not keen on climbing the bank and a couple thought to stand their ground there, but Song was not taking no for an answer and indeed the sheep gave up and popped over the bank and into the field. I often call her "the tactless wonder", but she is clever and resourceful and relishes a challenge.

I've got just 3 dogs to work now. I must admit I'm really enjoying having fewer dogs. It gives me more time for each dog and with 20 minutes I can give each dog a nice little piece of work.

May you all have a safe and happy New Year. May your stock be healthy, your dogs effective, and you and your family warm and safe.