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.