Friday, July 19, 2013

Great Expectations

I participated in a conversation about tail carriage in working Border Collies yesterday.  The conversation was about a young dog that was looking very good in his training, but carried his tail high. I was amazed that people were prioritizing the carriage of the tail as much (or more) as the quality of the work.  It seems that many believe the tail is like the needle on a very accurate meter of the dog’s mind set towards the job and stock.  Some handlers, self-described “tail snobs”, like the tail either tucked or tight to the dog’s legs. 

Border Collies carry their tails low when working. High tails generally indicate a dog that is distracted or playing, not settled into the job.  Some Border Collies actually tuck their tail tight to their bellies while working, some have the tail down along the hind legs.  Some carry their tails out a bit from the body, down at a 45 degree angle or steeper.  I’ve noticed that dogs with short, thick tails tend not to tuck them, and most of the extreme tucks are dogs with long, slender tails.  Very stylish workers, slinky and crouched, also seem more likely to have their tails tucked tight.  I have watched a number of very good dogs that do not carry their tails tucked or tight to their legs.  Mostly these are plain dogs in their work.

A dog’s tail carriage is indicative of their mind set, though hardly a precision meter of such.  The dog’s work is a far better indicator of their mind set.  The work is a complex combination of moves and decisions that is not as easy to judge as looking at the tail.  Humans like to have clear cut indicators that allow them to interpret and predict events.  We set expectations on those indicators, and expectations have a way of being fulfilled.  There is a great blog post on this:  How Great Teachers See.  Once we have established an indicator in our head, we quickly recognize all events that reinforce that indicator and subconsciously work to fulfill the expectations.  I had a superstitious friend who felt that bad things happened on Friday the 13th.  Indeed bad things happened on the 13th on any day of the week, and in fact bad things happened around the 13th, the middle of the month.  As the 13th approached she carefully itemized every event that could be considered unfortunate.   Had she been so attentive to finding ways to interpret events as unfortunate at other times she would have seen just as many bad things.  Another generalization is that black sheep are more difficult to manage.   Go to a trial where there are black sheep mixed in a predominantly white flock.  Watch the stock carefully, dropping any bias against black sheep if you can, and listen to handler comments.  Anything that goes wrong on the field will be attributed to the black sheep in the draw.  Folks will groan if they see a black sheep waiting for them at the top.  Yet often I watch and see that the black sheep is not difficult and not a leader.  It is simply following an independent white sheep.    Or the black sheep may seem difficult but what I’m seeing is the dog/handler team mismanaging a situation and then blaming the “difficult” black sheep.  In some flocks the colored sheep tend to be more difficult, but color is hardly the accurate indicator that many handlers believe it to be.

When a dog with who carries his tail a bit high make an error or indiscretion in his work folks will note how that tail carriage surely told them the dog’s mind was not right thus the indiscretion was inevitable.  When a dog with a tail tucked or tight to the legs makes an inappropriate move then it is simply an indiscretion.  When people dislike a dog for any reason, whether it be tail or work style or color or blood lines, they will remember everything that went wrong on the field and attribute the problems to the dog itself rather than handling or stock.

Sheep don’t look at the tail.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

She Delivers

Song was a very consistent performer this past weekend.  She got 2 second place finishes and a 5th.  Both double gathers were strong and all runs were good.  As people watched her I had a couple folks admit that they had never thought much of Song, but were beginning to be impressed by her results.  Indeed this is not the first time that folks have indicated that Song is not a particularly good dog, and at times I have mistakenly bought into this.  Song has almost no eye, little style, not much pace, and no presence.  Yet Song moved to open 4 months after her second birthday and placed immediately on a large course with balky sheep.  She has qualified for the National Finals multiple times, and won trials.  She seldom has a disastrous run, and often has very good runs.  What is it that makes this dog good, despite her limitations?

Song delivers.  She is always in the hunt.  She does not get flustered by new fields, new sheep, strong pressure, or any other challenges.  There are dogs that won't come forward on stock they are uncomfortable with, and dogs that won't stop on stock they are uncomfortable with.  There are dogs that may run ridiculously wide, never turning to look in for their sheep.  Spend time in the handlers tent and you will hear constant reasons why a dog either stopped working, stopped responding to commands, or did some strange and unproductive move on the trial field.  Often the dogs "can't hear" just a couple hundred feet from the handler's post.

Song delivers.  She delights in solving new problems, keeps her mind engaged and focused, has the confidence to take my commands even in difficult situations.  She hears me where other dogs "can't hear".  Song comes forward on slow stock and can be held back on light stock.  She starts her outrun with the intention of finding the stock and getting behind them, always looking in.  She is confident in her abilities and eager to partner with me even when the going gets rough.  She has almost no eye, little style, not much pace, and no presence.  Yet she has the game and flexible mind that allows her to get the job done more often than not, and get it done well. 

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Smooth Operator

Two years ago at this time I had three puppies, all within a few weeks of the same age.  Foolhardy.  I was smitten with Ruth, an adorable and brazen youngster.  Her bloodlines were producing consistently well and she was full of promise.  I had Cass, a young pup of my breeding, very handler soft but bold on her stock and thoughtful.  Then there was Marcus, the little prince, sired by my Levi and looking quite nice. 

As they grew I became more and more enamored of Ruth, but she was not clear headed.  On stock she glazed over and had trouble thinking and working with me.  She was also difficult in the pack, relentlessly working other dogs, or digging when she had no one to work.  Ruth went to be a goose dog.  Meanwhile Cass was looking fabulous.  Cass has a lovely way behind stock, bold as brass and oh so eager to please.  Cass was my new wonder-pup.  But Cass is very sensitive, making it hard to train her without teaching her to do nothing at all.  We make progress together slowly, Cass and I. 

Through all this Marcus looked good enough.  He can be a stubborn little guy, lost in the work and often really can't believe I'm foolish enough to want him to go left when right is right.  He tends to want to run wide and is not as sure of his stock as Cass.  He's a little dog.  I call him Mighty Mouse as when he races out on an outrun you can almost see his fist in the air, wide collar looking like a cape.  Marcus has yet to truly grasp driving as a concept, not being happy pushing stock away from me.  We continue to work on these problems, and the wall flower Marcus is stepping onto center stage. 

What is it about Marcus that is so appealing?  He is smooth.  Really smooth.  He transitions from flank to walkup, from fast to slow to stop to fast, all done with no notice of the change.  I used him for setout in May and had a chance to really watch him work on his own.  He'd slide in between the setout pen and the just released stock like a snake slithering along a garden wall.  Quick without being abrupt, no space taken, just there.  When he stops he settles to the ground in a smooth and quiet motion.  When he gets up it is the same in reverse.  He turns off a direct walkup into a flank with no discernible change to his frame or cadence, now he is walking up, now he is flanking.  You do not notice the transition.  Every movement he makes is calculated on its effect on the sheep.  In this way he keeps his sheep quietly directed.  Despite having a bit of edge, Marcus can settle stock.  He can clearly redirect sheep without any perceptible change in their pace or demeanor. 

I still have both Cass and Marcus.  Both are just over 2 years of age.  For now both are staying here so I'll get to see how they continue to improve.