“turns out sheep men are a breed of their own”
As cool as the promo is, I bet the entire film will be great:
“turns out sheep men are a breed of their own”
As cool as the promo is, I bet the entire film will be great:
Rumor had it there were baby farm animals!
Pickles and I hopped in the car Sunday morning to visit Susan and her menagerie of farm babies!
I was only thinking there would be lambs and baby goats but THIS guy caught me totally off guard. I adore him.
And the ram lamb is a free range “BFF”, as far as Pickles is concerned.
and a wee bairn
another wee bairn
and my favorite farm guy again!
and a sheep that was really interested in the sounds my camera was making!
and Pickles and her new mucker, Guapo.
and no trip to the farm is complete without a care package of duck eggs sent home…..apparently for Cody Bear.
In November we organized another instinct test so that some local herding dogs could answer their “call of the wooled”. It’s always so fun to see all the dogs and their different styles as they see sheep for the first time. It’s almost as much fun to see the people react when they see herding dogs’ instincts kick in.
This batch of dogs consisted of 2 Border Collies, 4 Border Collie mixes, one deaf Australian Cattle dog, 2 mini-aussies, one Australian Shepherd mix and 1 dog rescued from Thailand.
There were some surprises that day, for sure!
One of the fun surprises of the day was Lucy, a BC mix who some thought looked a lot more like a spaniel mix at first. While she was timid at first and her owner had to come in, once she found her farm paws it was lovely to see! One of the few dogs of the day to naturally find balance, she changed direction well and responded perfectly to any pressure. Her appearance was less like a Border Collie compared to the other BC mixes, but she moved most like a real working dog.
Kiva is an older BC (I can’t remember the exact age but at least 8) who was recently adopted from a family that never did any of the favorite Border Collie pastimes with her. She popped into the pen like she’d been herding sheep all her life. So glad her new mom gave her the chance to see sheep!
Pickles’ friend Nike was also present at the test! Like most of the dogs that day she needed her owner to be in the pen with her to gain some confidence to approach the sheep, but once she realized it was ok she made the most of it. Nike was very animated. The trainer told her owner that she showed instinct but there was a lot be work to be done. See Nike, like many dogs that have had advanced obedience or agility work, kept checking in with her owner, as opposed to independently moving the sheep around. So yeah, some instinct was there, but it was almost like she was way too obedient to really move them around easily at first.
Again, all the dogs were so different, some were just driving, some were chasing, some had some nice natural ability. It was a long morning, very exhausting for the trainers and the handlers to test that many dogs, but the sheep were plentiful and everyone seemed to really enjoy their day at the sheep farm.
Frank worked occassionally, moving fresh sheep into the pen, while Pickles mingled with the dogs after her lesson (which I can’t wait to tell you about!) and whined jealously at times when she couldn’t be in the pen with the sheep.
Years and years ago, long before I moved to Tucson, my boss gave me $200 to go to Petsmart to by a specific brand of chews for his dogs. I was standing at the checkout line with $200 worth of dog bones and the lady behind me eyed my purchase and said, “My, but we do spoil our dogs, don’t we?” To which I answered, “Isn’t that why we have dogs?” with a wee bit of an attitude, as if I had that kind of cash to spend on my own dog.
But really….isn’t that why we have our dogs? More simply….isn’t it to love? While a small percentage of sheepdog owners actually rely on sheep for their livelihood, having dogs for their sheep, a huge number of us have sheep for our dogs! Didn’t many of us get dogs to take care of? To have someone to cherish and spoil?
I have two dogs….I’m happiest when they’re happy.
On Friday Alicia found out she was off Saturday. I was free. We agreed to drive to Benson to work the dogs.
And we had two squealing, wagging babies as we pulled into the farm. And we had two smiling, resting babies as we left.
So, here they are….just happy to be around stock. Frank on sheep, Pickles meeting goats for the first time.
Saturday morning….full of smiles…..
On a Saturday in September we packed the dogs in the cars and headed to Benson for herding lessons. There were three canine students that day, two human students, two trainers and one rake.
With three very different dogs, this was a great opportunity to see the varying degrees of pressure each dog would take for training. Even though I was standing on a ranch next to a pen of sheep the whole morning felt like lab work. The round pen with a dog and sheep in it was a petri dish and the rake was the reagent. Let’s see what happens when we add the rake to a pen with three VERY different Border Collies and their sheep.
Dog 1: Molly. Very intense and unaffected by any pressure.
Molly had an instinct test last month and showed intensity and instinct. Her second exposure to sheep this past weekend was even more intense; so intense that she was oblivious to any pressure. Whereas last month she seemed joyous to chase the sheep, this month she seemed joyous chasing and gripping the sheep. The rake was only introduced to molly because she was completely unaware of the trainer in the pen with her and was running after and gripping the sheep. Molly was so fixated on the sheep and so grippy that the rake had to be brought in with hopes that she would heed it and lay off the stock a bit. But that didn’t happen. She ignored it. At top speed she ran after the sheep. When a trainer would growl and slam the rake to the ground behind the sheep she would run into it then go straight after the sheep again. By the end of the day she gave no signs that she was any closer to responding to pressure from anyone.
Player 2: Pickles. Newly responsive to pressure.
That Saturday was lesson two for Pickles with the rake. Initially she wasn’t aware that there were people with her in the ring and her barking was non-stop. The bag and the flag made no impact on her, but when the trainer introduced the rake, thumping it on the ground and growling, she became attentive. Now she is very responsive to it, but her face shows confusion. The thumping of the rake is used as a correction when she tries to come straight to me instead of the sheep, which happens frequently. You see, when Pickles is stressed or confused she wants to be close to her person. When Pickles has done well she wants praise from her person. But dear Pickles needs to stay away from her person when sheep are . She needs to work with her sheep then receive her cuddles outside of the round pen.
Player 3: Harley. Extremely sensitive to pressure.
No rake for Harley. Not only will he not need the rake or any other attention grabbing items, as he is so sensitive the mere presence of the trainer, it would be bad for his training if someone worked with him with an intimidating garden tool. It’s not needed and no one wants to scare him off the sheep all together. Harley moves beautifully with the sheep and within the course of the one morning gained confidence right in front of us.
As I side note, I wonder if Pickles will ever look at yard work the same again….
What would happen if the untrained, un-pedigreed, unquiet Pickles was expected to sit quietly for an entire day watching other dogs gather sheep and herd them right in front of her at the herding trials in New Mexico?
One would expect her to bark and make quite a scene. Or perhaps you would expect that when the sheep passed she would lunge and twist and we’d have to go rushing back to our hotel room, humiliated.
While she had been far from perfect the day before, left in a kennel angrily barking, day 3 of the trials had her at my side under a tent watching the Open Trials.
…..quietly and with a with a smile on her face.
While she had been a good girl that day, it was evident to me that the dogs competing were out of her league and I had been told it was possible that Pickles might never be able to figure out how to be an actual sheep dog. Maybe she could get some fundamentals, but she’d never have an outrun and she’d never be able to trial.
We were curious to see how she would do the next time she saw sheep upon returning home to Tucson. She had already had two “lessons” where she chased and barked and spit up dirt, being too excited to learn a thing.
I told Alicia that my goal for her next lesson was simple: I just wanted her to be in the pen with the sheep under control, not barking and responsive to people. Also, I really thought there was no way that would happen unless I was in there with her. I just had a feeling.
Lesson day! We approached the round pen. I told her to “lie down.” She did, sheep in sight and all! Alicia opened the gate and she and I went in while Picky stayed put. I called her in and instead of running straight to the sheep, barking, she walked up to me cautiously. I told her to lie down again and to stay. Alicia and I walked toward the sheep while my precious baby girl stayed in place, eyes darting at me, then the sheep, me, then the sheep.
We could have stopped there and I would have been fine; proud.
“OK Pickles, go get your sheep. She didn’t flank, like a good Border Collie. She ran right up to us and the sheep, but at least she stopped when I told her to.
She was excited and unruly, but she didn’t bark non-stop like previous times and she could be called off. The problem was….when we called her off she would calm down but she would heal next to me, not try to gather the sheep. At one point she did run behind the sheep and we ended on that good note.
Pickles had two more jaunts in the round pen that morning. We ended with her trying hard to figure out that the trainer and her rake meant that she was not supposed to be right next to her mom, me. At the end of that last jaunt she trotted behind the sheep, as we backed away.
As the trainer schooled her on boundaries she looked confused at times and her face kept no secrets: she was clearly trying to figure it out what we were wanting. And just when we started to wonder if the pressure was too much she would sit there…and wag.
Pickles isn’t going to easily become a herder. But she makes us all smile and laugh when she tries. She’s sort of like me and high school Physics. Always a struggle…but a pleasant surprise when a test is passed.
When we last left our heroes (Frank and Pickles) they were making themselves at home in the fields of New Mexico. Frank was herding sheep and Pickles was watching the action like a strange little farm groupie.
For the most part, Alicia’s first day of trialing was done at 8:00 am, so we were thinking we would just sit down and watch the experienced handlers at the Open field. But the gods of herding didn’t plan it that way and we found ourselves stuffing our dogs in a kennel and being wrangled onto the back of a pick-up truck to work as the judge’s helpers for the Open Ranch trials.
No one was more upset about this than Pickles. I could hear her barking from across the farm and almost had to leave with her, as our judge didn’t want my dog upsetting the man in the office right next to their kennel. He was tallying the scores for the entire trial, so I was advised that he needed to be happy and I might have to silence Pickles. Turns out, he was so immersed in his work that he didn’t even know she was whining and barking and said “Leave her there. It’s not bothering me.” Pickles eventually quieted down.
So, meanwhile, back at the Open Ranch runs: Judge Bonnie had Alicia scribe for her and I was keeping time. Each run was 8 minutes long and we were there from about 9 am till 2:30 pm with a 30 minute break for lunch. But we hadn’t brought lunch as we were planning on leaving around noon after watching a couple hours of Open runs. There were Kashi bars in the car, but learn from our mistake: if you don’t eat all day then you eat a melting Kashi bar with a warm bottle of water in 100 degrees heat….you WILL get sick. And you will throw up and you will have to leave George at the sheepdog trials to do your math. George won’t mind, but she will get a sun burn. But it couldn’t be helped. We weren’t prepared to be sitting in the sun all day. Always expect the unexpected, I suppose.
Despite my sunburn and Alicia’s heat sickness, spending a few hours with a judge is never a bad idea when you’re learning about trials! Bonnie knew I was brand new to the action and that Alicia was a young person that was obviously going to be heavily involved in herding, so she just flat out explained everything to us. “Here’s why I did this…”, “when you’re trialing make sure to remember this…”
The three days at the trial I felt really out of place most of the time, but I really didn’t feel weird asking Bonnie stupid questions. Seemed like she liked getting stupid questions, actually. One little tip she gave me after discussing Pickles’ health problems and my lack of competitiveness in regards to trialing: Don’t trial to win; do it because you and your dog have fun. That makes sense, as neither Pickles nor I have been called phenoms to date, but we do love it and we are both obsessed with sheep now.
Wow, I really wanted to write about my new crush today, but I’ve said too much already! My next post will be about Rio, a Border Collie who stole the show and the hearts of the ladies on the back of the pick-up truck.
First order of business on Friday was to arrive at Free To Be Ranch and go straight to Alicia and Frank’s “Handlers’ Meeting” at the novice arena. There they met their judge, Bonnie, and discussed the course while waiting for Debbie and her dog Boo to arrive with the set-out sheep. Alicia and Frank would have two runs that morning. They both appeared to be really calm and happily expectant.
Pickles and I stood about 30 feet behind the judge’s stand and watched as Alicia quietly sent Frank away on his outrun toward his sheep. This was the first trial I had been to, and yes, I’d seen Frank work before, but it was different at the trial. Everything happened so quickly and seemed like he was doing a perfect run. By the time they got to penning my eyes were totally tearing up, I was so proud of Alicia and her dog Frank. And they were both visibly happy with their run.
The novice course started out with an outrun of about 150 yards, then Frank brought the sheep back to Alicia at the post. She didn’t have to stay at the post, as this was an easier run for novices, but she wanted to see if they could work with this distance. Next was a short drive, followed by a cross drive and ending with penning the four sheep. The judge made the second run a little harder for her since the first one went so well, pushing the outrun back further. The lift didn’t go as well that time, but that’s ok, her intention at this run was more to learn where Frank was in his work and teach him through obstacles, not get a winning score.
I asked Alicia about her thoughts on the trial. She was proud of Frank for doing so well at the cross-drives, something they haven’t practiced much, and she was proud of how controlled and respectful of the stock he was. After a couple runs, the judge offered her some advice on working with these particular sheep to help with future penning efforts. All in all….Alicia was more than pleased with Frank. And everyone who met him, including the judge, was taken with him. His attitude and his talent made a great impression and the judge was quick to warn some of the open handlers that Alicia and Frank are coming for them! Not that they’re out to get anyone, but it’s pretty certain that Alicia and Frank are already making their mark in the herding world. Plus they made many new contacts and friends during their time in New Mexico, which is good. It always helps to be welcomed into the community.
My impression of their first two runs was simple: It was perfect and they made it look easy! And the run probably was too easy for them. They could have entered the next class and done well, but I’m glad they set themselves up to succeed and can move to the next level with confidence. Alicia had told me months ago that one thing she learned at the clinic she went to at Red Top Kennels was that when trialing at the novice level, you should actually be prepared for the pro-novice level. Ideally that would make for a nice clean experience, which is exactly what happened. I don’t know how she managed to say “That’ll do” to Frank over such a huge smile at the end of these runs.
Since the USBCHA trial at Free To Be Ranch Alicia has been very clear that she is thankful for the knowledge and support she has received, particularly from her trainer Sue Bradley and the trainers at novice camp in Idaho, Patrick Shannahan and Dianne Deal.
This was only day 1 of the 3 day trial, so we have many things to blog about the rest of the week. We’ll see you back here at the next post with the second half of day two….where one of us gets ill, one of us gets scared to be left alone and one of us develops a little crush.
One thing about sheep is they like to stick together. They need to stick together. And it is the nature of the Border Collie to keep the sheep together and to bring them to you. So “shedding”, the act of a dog separating one or more sheep from the rest of the flock, is really difficult and goes against the very fiber of their beings.
As a beginner learns the basics of herding they are told repeatedly to watch the sheep….not the dog. You watch the sheep, the sheep watch the dog, and the dog watches the sheep. No one watches you….unless you’re falling over.
As if convincing a hesitant dog to go through the sheep that it is alright to separate them instead of holding them in a group isn’t hard enough, in a shed a novice dog also has to go against its nature by taking its eye off the sheep and looking at you while it is learning the new skill. Once he has learned shedding he will continue only eying the sheep.
He has been taught to keep sheep together at all costs and to eye the flock, but now he is being asked to break them up and take his eyes off them. In learning a shed with a dog lacking confidence to go right through, you would have to watch the sheep and look for a natural separation between them and coax your dog through that gap. Find the gap call him to you, encourage him, grab his attention and praise him when he makes it through to your side. It will take a great amount of reward/praise to make him understand that he was actually correct to trust his handler and move through the sheep.
One thing I learned this weekend as I watched the lesson on shedding is that it is not normal behavior for one to sit at a sheep ranch with a giant notepad and a pencil. My dog, Pickles, was still at home healing, but I got to go and watch a couple different dogs work on their skills and jot down some notes on shedding. I liked the way the trainer was explaining it to the handler, and I also liked that the founding principles of all training apply: learning it the right way first and understanding that the setup is critical will help you achieve your goals.
The chatter regarding setup was a lot more fun for me than it was for the dog.
The handler worked the dog to help get the sheep all lined up and their heads in the same direction, then the Border Collie was instructed to walk up to the sheep in the direction they were facing and work in little flanks, scalloping the sheep while the handler eyed the group for a tiny break, then the dog was encouraged to go through that gap towards his handler and one small flock of sheep was then two smaller flocks of sheep.
I could see that in the beginning of the exercise the dog was not comfortable taking his eyes off the sheep and moving through them. Initially it took a lot of encouragement to keep the dog’s focus on the human instead of the sheep, but it didn’t take long at all for him to become confident with the exercise.
There has been a lot of wagging around the house since Saturday. Pickles had her second herding lesson, and while she didn’t awe anyone with her natural finesse and power, she has managed to convince everyone that she loves it and will improve over time. Over a long time. Slowly and comically improve over a very long time.
Pickles first lesson (6/9/12) was a demonstration of over-exuberance and lack of attention to people. She had no control previously so one of the focuses this weekend was going to be turning Pickles off and on. You can’t just yell at a dog new to stock if they bark too much because you don’t want them to think that being with sheep is a bad thing. It’s quite similar to agility training that way: if they approach the wrong equipment and you were to yell at them for that, they would have a bad association with that equipment.
I knew the minute she walked into the pen this was going to be different. At her test and first lesson she took off at a dead run at the sheep and went full throttle till she was exhausted. This time Alicia took her in on the long line and put her in a nice sit stay. The sheep were moving around anxiously, knowing it was an inexperienced dog. But Pickles was in a nice stay, so they soon just stopped and stood still. She was looking at the sheep with obvious excitement but did not move.
With her noisy intimidating “boogie bag” in hand Alicia walked over to the sheep and Pickles stayed like a good dog. Then Alicia called Pickles but Pickles didn’t move. She tried a couple release commands but Pickles sat still. Unsure, Pickles looked over her shoulder at me about 30 feet away outside the pen as if to say “Is it okay?” I answered the imagined question with a quiet “go one” and she was off, quietly, straight to the sheep.
The silence didn’t last long. Pickles barks a high pitched bark when frustrated. It was less barking than last time, though. Like last time, she managed to fetch the sheep a couple times, but unlike last time….she slowed her pace down enough that the sheep could actually halt at Alicia’s feet. Last time she just kept running too fast and then would charge through them.
She did start getting unruly, so they growled at her and corrected her. She was on….now she was off. And Pickles didn’t like being off. She apparently sulks and wants to leave the pen when she isn’t allowed to run amuck! Her looks implored me to let her out because it wasn’t fun anymore, so I had to walk away from the gate and let Alicia entice her back to the sheep. It took a great deal of enticing because Pickles was being a bit of a drama queen.
The good news: The second trip into the pen after a rest yielded no drama and sulking when she was turned off. She even got to demonstrate that she wasn’t afraid to move between the sheep and the fence to get them moving again. She even found “balance” a couple times…but we’re not sure she’s aware she did!
The bad news: We cut the practice a little short because she began limping. She was fine the next day, but we’re still taking the month of July off to avoid the heat and work on conditioning.
She sat in the kennel wagging and smiling for the next couple hours while Frank worked and I learned a few things. On the way home Frank slept peacefully while Pickles sat there smiling and wagging non-stop. She’s been happy ever since. And when Pickles is happy, everyone is happy. It’s hard to be cranky when that little girl is bouncing around.
Later that day I had to give Pickles a bath to wash away her sheep dirt. This displeases Pickles, but she likes being cool afterwards. I thought you might want to see how much smaller she looks when wet, as many people love to tell me how fat she is.