Sunday, October 18, 2015

Sacco Cart

Some snow fell today, just bits of flakes being batted around by the wind on a cold and cloudy day.  No white on the ground, but winter’s calling card inspired me to get the dogs out with the Sacco cart in preparation for the sled.  The cart is a bit dicey with more than a couple dogs.  I’m often foolish but seldom outright stupid, so I elected to drive 40 minutes to the rail trail in Mason, NH.  It is fairly smooth and straight and has a slight incline most of the way out, just shy of five miles total. 

I brought my trusty tire to drag behind for some extra control.  Chord, the craziest of the team, is in season so I was justified in leaving her behind.  I had Ike and Poe as newbies.  Ike ran a couple times on short runs with the sled last year.  He did not cover himself with glory.  Poe has never been hitched other than pulling the tire in the backyard a couple times.  I hitched Jag and Levi in wheel position first, then Song and Marcus in lead.  As soon as the leaders were hitched Jag started screaming and Levi joined barking.  This had Marcus eager to hurl himself into the harness and start the run every time the wind rustled a leaf.  I still had to hitch the newbies Poe and Ike in the middle.  This involved me wrestling with Ike who turned himself into a 40 pound circus poodle leaping and twirling and flipping.  Then Poe pulled out of his collar, and when that was tightened he wrapped himself around Ike somehow getting between Ike and Ike’s snappy new harness.  If it were not for me bellowing LIE DOWN trying to keep the older dogs in place during the antics it would have looked like an act in Cirque Du Soliel.  I heard a voice and looked up to see a mountain biker concerned for the welfare of me and the dogs.  How embarrassing, but he was very practical and helpful.  He tried to hold Ike but that was like trying to hold the Tasmanian devil at this point.  So he ran back and stood on the cart, which had the back wheels locked with the brake.  Then the dogs dragged the cart with the wheels locked, the man on the cart for weight, and the tire tied behind, all while I yelled LIE DOWN.  Not one of our finest moments.  Finally I had all the dogs pointed in the same direction.  I leaped on the cart and off we went. 

Things improved dramatically once we were off.  Though about a mile into the run Ike spotted someone on a blue Sacco cart rattling along down the trail chasing us.  He spent another half mile or so getting pulled by his neckline with his hackles up and barking trying to look back at the alien cart.  Either getting dragged sideways became tedious after a while, or he realized it was me on the cart.  He settled. 

Monday, October 12, 2015


I took the dogs for an early walk this morning at Old Chatham.  The colors were just beginning to emerge from the grey of dawn, morning mist lifting in wisps like woodland fairies.  As we walked the leaf strewn trail along the river the dogs caught scent of some wild thing recently crossed our path.  Dare, almost 14 with bad knees and ailing kidneys, was first to catch the trail of the unknown creature.  In that muffled and magical wood he shed the weight of the years like shaking water from his coat.  His back lifted, head up, he sprang through the woods over saplings and logs, turning straight up an almost vertical slope up to a hayfield a good 50 feet above.  Turning mid slope he bounded back down, following the trail.  He was not an old dog having a good time despite his frailties.  He was 5 again, in his prime, vibrant, powerful and so very alive. I called his name and he flew to my feet.  He met my gaze with eyes full of unencumbered delight.  Perhaps he was chasing a faun or unicorn.  Whatever beast left those traces of itself for Dare to find gave us both a few minutes of immortal joy.

Friday, October 2, 2015

Going the Distance

Spot sweeps up behind the stock at the top of the hill, 200 yards away from you.  Spot lifts nicely, a good top, please let him settle and bring the sheep straight.  Damn, too fast, start blowing stop whistles, “Lie Down, Lie Down, LIE DOWN”.  Did he slow down?  I think so, but we’re already down at the fetch panels and about to miss them, give him a flank.  He sort of took that flank, made the panels anyway, now closer I can get him to stop.  Whew.  Wow did we get a wild draw.  These girls won’t settle.  Spot is listening now, but pretty wired since the sheep are so wild.  Could we have caused this?  Spot does not listen well at a distance.  He never has no matter how much I yell.  Naughty dog knows when I’m close enough to enforce my commands. 

First let’s discuss some key concepts. 

Consistency -  In order for corrections to work they must be consistent.  Not harsh, consistent.  Consistent enforcement teaches dogs the requirements.  Occasional harsh corrections will not teach the dog but they will make him tense.

Latency – Commands mean to perform an action now.  Not in five steps, five seconds, at whatever Zen moment the dog feels in balance.  Avoid the string of reasons why the dog was justified in delaying.  You are in charge and you have the plan.  You don’t need to micromanage the dog with an endless string of commands, but you do need to have the dog take commands when given.  This is about clarity.  “Lie Down” means stop, now.   Very clear and easy for both the dog and handler to understand.  If you just need your dog to steady up then don’t use a stop. 

Priority – When you are about to miss a panel on an otherwise good run at a big trial that moment may be more important than the future.  When you are trying to catch an injured lamb that moment may be more important than the future.  Most of the time a particular moment is not critical.  Pay attention to the dog’s work and if he does not take a command promptly then enforce it promptly.

Trust – you will be amazed at how much your working relationship with your dog improves when you can trust that he will take your commands.  When you can be sure of a stop or flank when and where you need one then you will be able to relax and do your job, allowing the dog to relax and do his job.   

Clearly there is no point working on getting your dog to listen at a distance if he is not listening up close.  Listening up close means that when you give a command in a controlled situation the dog complies immediately, one command.  Pay attention to your dog and to yourself.  Are you letting commands slide because you don’t want to interrupt the flow of the work?  If so, then you need to start enforcing those commands every time.  If the dog stops well then stop the dog and walk to a position where you can make sure the dog does as asked, for example a clean flank.  If the dog does not stop well then walk into its face while giving a gruff correction appropriate to the dog and situation.  Keep walking as you train so as to keep yourself in a position to enforce commands with your body as well as your mouth.   

The difference to the dog on listening at a distance is whether the handler continues to enforce the commands as the dog is further and further away.  Most dogs learn to listen well at a distance with minimal work if they’ve always been expected to listen and that rule is maintained as the distances increase.  If your dog’s early experiences with longer gathers demonstrate that you will be walking up and making sure he stops at the top then he’s not going to change his behavior from that nice stop you trained close.  If you fasten yourself to the ground and start yelling, well the old saying is “the louder the handler the deafer the dog.”  All that yelling just increases adrenaline.  The dog tenses, worries, but you’ve never walked up close enough to enforce the command so the actual meaning is lost. 

Once your dog is working crisply on command up close start increasing the distances.  It is important that you do not grow roots when you start sending the dog further.  When driving, walk alongside, maybe 10 yards away, maybe 100, but keep moving with the dog so you are in a position to enforce commands that are not taken.  When you are working on a gather be ready to start up the middle as soon as you send the dog.  No running, just stroll up the middle so you will be closer at the top.  If the dog is still not stopping keep walking, maybe jog, maybe think if it was too far, but keep heading into the dog until it stops.  The moment the dog stops, back off and get him back to work.  This is not the time for a handler tantrum.  The dog needs to see that stopping is the best way to keep the work going. 

Here is the most important thing….the big secret…you have to chew this article up and eat it after you read this. 

Do not give your dog another command until the dog has stopped, really stopped. 

When you first start training a pup, what do you do when it has stopped nicely?  You give him a flank, or a walkup, you give him his sheep.  Why?  Because you are rewarding him for that nice stop.  If he does not stop you block him and enforce the stop, then give him that next command.  You are training a dog for its entire life.  If you give your dog a flank, or steady, or walkup when it has just run through one or more stop whistles what are you teaching him?  You are teaching him that you want him to just keep coming when you make all that noise. 

Watch handlers blow stop whistles and holler stops at their dogs while the dogs continue on happily, maybe slow down, but never really comply.   Then the sheep start leaning to one side or the other and the handler gives a flank.  Your little apoplectic tirade is not all that compelling at 300 yards, particularly when you have carefully trained the dog to wait for the flank.  Spot is not blowing you off.  He is working to the rules you have trained.  You react to a dozen missed stops by whistling and yelling far away, and whistling and yelling far away becomes like the cars passing on the road, background noise.  Then, maybe, the handler will run up the field, driving Spot back up the field, berating him.  Now let’s look at that from Spot’s point of view.  For every time you go dashing up the field in a great display of dominance you allow 10-100 missed stops go by.  How is Spot to know exactly what has caused you to become so angry.  You always yell and fuss on the fetch, but that’s just the usual noise of work. 

So the “naughty dog” does not know when you are close enough to enforce your commands.  You are always close enough.  After a few trips up the field you won’t have to walk far.  Some handlers complain that they have trouble walking that far.  You don’t often need to make the trip if you establish the pattern of doing so.  Indeed I think the handlers that are reluctant to walk to their dog end up walking further as they are constantly trying to patch up the dog’s training.  It is easier to maintain a well trained dog than a dog who has been taught that your distant noises mean you want him to take over until the action is closer to you.