June 30th, 2010


Balancing Acts

(Originally posted at http://sheepdogtrialling.blogspot.com/)

It was lesson day on Tuesday. Brian, who is English, reported that he was “disconsolate” over England’s loss to Germany, 4-1, on Sunday. “The English and the Germans hate each other. It’s like bloody World War Three!” Nevertheless, Brian apparently recovered because he seemed to be in his typical fine spirits.

Today was quiz day. When I arrived, he was working with a new student and her one-year old, smooth-coated border collie. Before entering the round pen to work with the dog, he said: “I want you to define an off-balance flank and an in-balance flank. And tell me why it’s harder for Rodeo to take an off-balance flank.”

I pondered that while I watched the young dog circle the sheep, keeping them between her and Brian. He walked backwards, letting the sheep follow him, and then swerved one way or another to allow the dog to cover them and keep pushing the sheep towards him. When Brian shifted direction and she was a little distance behind them, she cast out nicely to turn the sheep towards him. But when he sent her from his side, she went around tightly, flashed in, and tried to grip. It was very reminiscent of Rodeo when he was first beginning.

Afterwards he asked me for answers. I should describe the set-up. Picture a clock face. The sheep are in the center. I am standing at 6 o’clock, and the dog is poised at 2 o’clock. If I send him on a come by flank (clockwise), the dog will arc towards me. If I send him on an away flank (counter-clockwise), he will arc towards the top, behind the sheep and past if I ask him to continue. The balance point is 12 o’clock – if the dog is there, the sheep are pinned between us and we have maximum control. This is the position the dog will instinctively take. Most young border collies will run to this position with no training at all.

Brian looked at me expectantly, so I answered: “An off balance flank moves the dog away from the direction of control. An in balance flank moves him towards it. It’s harder to go off-balance because he wants to stay in control,” I said. In my example above, the off-balance flank is clockwise, taking the dog towards me. The sheep could potentially wander directly away from us, and that can make a dog anxious. On the other hand, an in balance flank would send him counter-clockwise, towards the balance point. It’s the direction the dog naturally wants to go.

Brian nodded. “Very good. Now you can add those definitions to your blog.” The keen-eyed reader will notice that I have done just that.

Brian asked what I wanted to work on and I said I’d like to do some driving. He responded with a mini-lecture on the importance of him accepting flanking commands. “He’s still blowing you off,” Brian said, and I had to admit it was true. Rodeo knows the meaning of the come by (clockwise) and away (counterclockwise) commands. But he sometimes refuses to take them, usually when I’m asking him to take an off-balance command that would force him to give up control.

Why would I take control away from him? To ‘free him up,’ as Brian puts it, so that I can get him to move in any direction on the sheep and force them to change direction. His instinct is to run to that balance point and bring the sheep to him. This is related to driving. If I want him to drive the sheep away from me, he must come between me and the sheep. If I want him to a cross drive, that is, to drive them across my field of vision, he has to go to one side of the sheep and then push them forward. All the while his instinct is shouting at him to run to the balance point and exert maximum control. Experience and training must overcome that, and it is no easy thing.

When he’s ‘blowing me off,’ he’s really just listening to his instinct. He needs to trust me enough to overcome that, to know that even if I send him away from the balance point, the sheep won’t get away.

Brian had me do an exercise in the round pen to encourage that. I stood against the fence with the sheep next to me, and gave him a flanking command. The goal was to get Rodeo to come around the sheep and come to my feet, then continue around, coming between me and the sheep, and then circling around the far side of them to complete a circle. But Rodeo wouldn’t do it. He’d come a little ways, then stop and reverse direction. Why? Because he knew if he came to me, the sheep would start to drift away, and he’d be losing control. So I encouraged him by calling him to me, and eventually he did come all the way to me and circle back around, but it’s evident that we need to do a lot more work on it.

By contrast, Brian's dog Doc circled the sheep on command with Brian standing outside the pen giving commands.

Afterwards, we went out into the open field and did some gathers (outrun followed by a fetch). Some of the sheep were left in the round pen, and we positioned him so that when I sent him on the outrun, he would have to run past the sheep in the pen. Most dogs have a tendency to get distracted by other sheep, and Rodeo is no exception. He often pauses or even goes to the fence of the pen. This is a serious issue because in trials, there is an exhaust pen not far from the handlers’ post, and the dog will see that the sheep go to that pen after previous runs, so he knows there are sheep there. If he goes to the exhaust, the judge will deduct points.

This is exactly what Rodeo did at the Whidbey Island trial a couple of weeks ago. Some handlers go to the extreme of shielding the dog from the exhaust pen so that they don’t know there are any sheep there, but our solution is to train him to understand which sheep we’re after.

So Brian instructed me to walk him into the field until he saw the sheep, telling him ‘these, these.’ Then we walked back in the direction of the round pen where we would start the outrun, and if he looked at the sheep in the pen I said, ‘no.’ That would get him to look away from those sheep, but his attention kept drifting back to them. I think with enough repetition he’ll learn to differentiate.

During the fetch, when Rodeo was marching the sheep to me after the outrun, I gave him a flank command to see if he would take it. I gave him an ‘away’ and he arced in a counterclockwise direction until I gave him the ‘walk up’ command to start coming into the sheep again. That was an off-balance command because during the fetch he had perfect control as he was already at the balance point, walking the sheep towards me. Any flanking command moved him away from that point, so we were encouraged that he took it.

"Have him drive them towards Judy," Brian shouted. Judy was watching the proceedings from her fold-up chair next to the round pen. I gave Rodeo a flanking command to get him in position. This required an off-balance flank because I was standing on the opposite side of the sheep from Judy. I had to call him close to me -- way off the balance point. But he was very good and moved to the right spot, and then walked up to drive them towards her.

I called him off and we went to the pen. Here the object was to work on how he deals with running sheep. I sent Rodeo into the pen, and he at first refused, again for fear of losing control. In the pen, with me standing at the gate, his instinctive reaction would be to run behind the sheep and bring them to me. But he knew that if I was standing at the gate, the sheep would run past me and into the field. So, being a little too smart for his own good, he refused to go in at all.

Eventually I coaxed him with some encouragement (‘hyah! ‘hyah!’), and he ran into the pen, got behind them, and then tore after them like a bat out of hell when they escaped. He flashed in and gripped a couple of times – nipping them as he flashed past them. This is a no-no because in a trial a grip disqualifies you. Gripping is appropriate in the right situation, like when the dog is imposing its will on a recalcitrant ram, but not just because the sheep are on the run. Instead, the dog needs to cast out nice and wide to gather them back up again.

We repeated the exercise by re-penning the sheep and sending him in again, but both times he lost his head and flashed in on them as they ran out to the open field. Then Brian told me to lie him down as soon as he came out of the pen, and then send him again. By lying him down and giving him a moment to think, we hoped he would make a different choice. Sure enough, he took the lie down and when I sent him again a moment later, he cast out widely and calmly brought them back to the pen. It would be best if we didn’t have to lie him down, if he would make that choice to begin with, but that’s probably a matter of experience. It was a good sign that he did so well when given a moment to think.