For anyone who works with livestock, one day is pretty much the same as another - you don't get days off - so I suppose it's just a habit that every Monday morning I reflect on the weekend that's gone. This weekend was fascinating; over the two days we saw four dogs who couldn't have been more different from each other.
On Saturday morning - beautifully sunny and unseasonably mild - we were introduced to Milo. At the age of three Milo's career to date has been as a pet, but a change in his family's circumstances has given him the opportunity to work sheep if he wants to. We didn't get a photo of Milo, so just imagine a classic, fluffy, black and white "calendar collie" and you won't need one! Milo's Kennel Club registered and certainly bred for his looks, so we were worried that perhaps the work instinct had been lost along the way.
We needn't have worried. After a puppy-like "bouncy" start, and some excited, but harmless, "dive bombing" of the sheep, Milo settled to his task and we were soon able to get him out into the open field to work the sheep. This was made all the easier by Milo's handler quickly picking up what he needed to do, and where he needed to be, to clearly show Milo what he wanted. Dog and handler went away justifiably pleased with themselves.
We suggested Milo's owner should get in touch with the breeder and let her know how well Milo is doing. Breeders of show bred Kennel Club registered collies come in for criticism for breeding dogs that can't fulfill their original herding task, and it's great to see that supposition proved wrong.
So much for "unseasonably warm"
Sunday was back to business as usual - pouring with rain - proper sheepdog weather! Lass and Kayla travelled up from somewhere unpronouncable near Builth Wells in mid-Wales and the irrepressible Shep joined us again from Ditton Priors in Shropshire.
Kayla is a collie x Beardie and she's lovely, with a face rather like a wire-haired terrier. Kayla's a real charmer and a delight to train, with a lovely steady pace, but her shepherd owner wanted help with widening Kayla out from the sheep, both close at hand and on her outrun. We worked on these points and Kayla responded beautifully. All she needs now is lots of work to perfect her technique until it becomes second nature.
Kayla's kennel mate, Lass, is a smooth coated black and white bitch with superb control over her sheep. Her outrun is beautiful, she stops well, flanks calmly and wide and she's an asset to her handler so why, you may ask, did she come here for training? Well, Lass would get behind her sheep and start to bring them, but if the flock stopped, Lass stopped too. She refused to apply any pressure to bring the sheep on.
Before Andy can tell what's causing a problem he normally needs to see it happen, but our training sheep are so dogged that they move away from the dog very easily: all Lass had to do was walk behind them to keep them moving. He needed something to stop the sheep - and who better than Kay? Andy asked Kay to walk forward to meet the sheep that Lass was bringing up, and Kay applied just the right pressure to stop them without scattering them. Lass immediately lay down, watching her stationary sheep and refusing to bring them on even when Kay was no longer holding them.
From her body language Andy suspected that Lass's problem was purely a lack of confidence, so Andy and Lass's owner clapped their hands, made excited "shushing" sounds and shouted lots of encouragement and praise. Lass's ears immediately pricked up, she got to her feet and, with further encouragement, began flanking back and forth to shift the sheep. It worked! With her success Lass's body language became far more positive and she went about her work with much more enthusiasm. With further encouragement, Lass will gain confidence and be an even better sheepdog than she was already. Confidence really is everything to a sheepdog.
A lack of confidence doesn't appear to be Shep's problem.
Rough coated Shep has been here a few times before, so we knew what to expect. Shep's huge and powerful and he gave his owner a really hard time, pulling frantically hard on the lead even when he was a good distance from the sheep. As the pair got closer, Shep was leaping up and down quite uncontrollably. Once he was released Shep rushed into the sheep, scattering them like snooker balls, but then Andy was surprised and pleased to see his owner get him under control. After a while, Shep began to work quite well.
To an onlooker (always a priviledged position!) it was clear that his frantic approach to the sheep was "winding up" Shep. By the time he was released he was so desperately excited that things were bound to go wrong. Andy stopped the session to discuss the problem and how it could be avoided. In the meantime, held securely on his lead, Shep soon accepted that he couldn't get to the sheep; he sat down and began to relax.
For Shep's next outrun Andy positioned himself between dog and sheep and asked for Shep to be released. By just dropping the lead the release was so smooth that Shep didn't even notice it. Andy gave Shep a command to send him off, and he went around the sheep calmly. Andy was then able to control Shep by using the quietest, almost whispered, commands. Most of the time Shep responded instantly, and the whole session was much more calm.
Shep's owner's homework is to maintain this calm approach, and to refuse to be led into the cycle of 'pull or be pulled' that has become a routine for the two of them. Shep's respect for, and confidence in, his handler will increase as a result.
It's so important to try your utmost to stay calm, even when everything around you seems to be out of control. A calm dog will keep the sheep calm, and a calm handler has the best chance of maintaining a calm dog - it's better for your blood pressure too. It's no coincidence that sheepdog trials aren't won by excited dogs.