Wednesday, December 26, 2012

First Try at Herding!

Coby went home last night, and things are a bit quiet around here. Sookie initially reverted to some old behaviors, like constantly pawing me while I'm working at the computer. So, I reverted to the old response: stand up and walk away. It didn't take very many times for her to get the message.

She unwittingly gave herself a good lesson on manners with guests this morning. A friend with a darling, sweet old chihuahua, Chalupa, visited us this morning. Sookie decided the visiting dog could not come in the living room, and Chalupa decided to play her "age card"..."I'm an old lady and I can go in the living room if I want to". Sookie flew into a tizzy at Chalupa, using some pretty nasty dog language...but in doing so, she accidentally knocked into a big empty popcorn tin that was sitting nearby with the lid partly on. The lid flew off with a clatter, the can made a huge crash, the sky fell, Sookie decided that her crate was plenty 'nuff territory to defend, and beat a hasty retreat before the rest of Armageddon happened. We humans just sat back and watched karma step in and handle the situation better than we could ever have done. Natural consequences are the best training device! After that, she was polite to the little dog.

This afternoon, Sookie had her first actual off-leash try at the sheep! We'd ventured into the sheep pen earlier, on-leash, but Sookie's whole attention was on sheep poop. So I decided that a better environment would be to let the sheep out on pasture where the sheep poop would be further apart and the sheep would be moving a lot. Instead of going in through the pen, we walked from the pasture to the pen, then let the sheep out. The sheep were overjoyed!

I mostly just watched, assessing her behavior with the sheep while being ready to intervene if a sheep decided to stand her down. At this stage, an attack by a big sheep could sour her to herding for a long time.

One of the runts was lagging behind, and I was pleased to see that Sookie was reluctant to pass it in order to keep up with the rest of the flock as they joyfully ran out to the pasture. Some dogs aren't careful to stay out of the middle of a group, and then things go really wonky as sheep move away from the dog in all directions. Sookie's reluctance to pass by the laggard kept the whole flock moving as a unit.

Once we were all out in the wide open space of the pasture, I waved at Sookie to go out around the flock, and she did...a very nice outrun at an adequate distance away from the greedily grazing sheep to keep the sheep calm, but still keeping a light contact with them, watching them all the time. She wasn't sure what to do when she got out there, though, and since the sheep aren't dog broke (trained to come to the handler when they see a dog), they didn't help us out. So at that point she shifted her attention back to me: "Mom......????? Now what?????"

I went to her and encouraged the sheep to move away from her, but by then she'd glued her attention back to me. So we went back around the sheep a bit to my starting point, and I waved her off around them in the other direction. Out she went again on a nice outrun, good as gold...just still not sure what to do when she got out there.

I don't want to call her to walk up on them until I know they won't stomp at her when I can't protect her. I don't want them to bully her and make her afraid to work. I'll be trying to find someone nearby with a good herding dog to come "dog break" the sheep, before we can make too much progress. But it was a good start.

She did sort of accidentally get the sheep moving again, by her presence; they decided to all run back to the sheep pen. Again, she was reluctant to pass the slow lamb, and looked like a pro "wearing" back and forth behind it, trying to get it to go faster. It didn't (spoiled bottle baby). So the flock got to the pen and "bounced" at the gate (even though it was open) and came back at us while we were approaching a wide intermediary gate. It was pretty comical because they all stopped right along the line of the open gate, as if there was an invisible wall, when they saw me and Sookie coming at them!

Then they headed for the pen again, and this time Sookie and I made them all go in. Sookie's "wearing" was actually very helpful in effecting this, and she got lots of praise!

She is pretty much a dream least if I can gradually wean her away from looking at me and get her to keep her attention on the sheep. She works on her feet, and doesn't "stick" in one spot, laying down eyeing the sheep. She is a natural at "wearing"--small dodging moves to the left and right that keep her on the sheep's radar and "steer" the sheep. She doesn't bark at them and go nuts, she doesn't run in too close and scatter them, she doesn't attack them, they seem calm around her. I'm very optimistic about training her to be a great working dog!

Afterwards, we went to the Romping Grounds for a reward. We're playing with three balls now, and she'll get them one at a time and put them in the bucket, sometimes even on the first try!

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

More Balls, More Fun

It has been good having Coby, the big Golden Retriever/Poodle mix, staying with us for a couple weeks. After the initial fuss over social status and territory in the house, he and Sookie have become good companions. They get along well at home, and have a great time romping together on the farm.

It's especially valuable to Sookie's training. Nothing like a big lumbering random distraction to hone her attention to me... and he keeps me from accidentally falling into routines I'm not aware of.

Sookie is very sensitive to routines. At first, we always went straight out to the "romping grounds" when we went to the farm morning and evening. Recently, we've had a few issues with her trying to INSIST that we go there first, before doing chores...and refusing to walk out to the pasture until after the romping grounds. Well, I need to be the one who gives orders, and sometimes we have to put work before play on the farm!

I'm letting both dogs off the leash as soon as the farm gate is closed behind us now. Then I stop Sookie with a "Lie Down" or a "Wait" at each gate or intersection. Trying to keep her  guessing...where will I go next? Sometimes I try to fake her out, or start one way then change my mind. She is learning to pay attention to me, learning that I'm unpredictable but something fun usually happens if she sticks with me.

At the romping grounds, we have two tennis balls now. And Coby. It's getting really exciting!

We've been working a lot on finding lost balls. When I can see them, and she's searching, I use the sheep-finding commands: "Look Back" (if it's behind her) and "Here Here" (if it's between me and her). Slowly she is learning to turn and search farther away on command. This is a challenge for her, because she wants to work close to me, watching me. Turning away from me is hard for her, but very necessary when working sheep. When in doubt, she starts going into orbit around me, looking at my feet. Not productive!

Continual random drilling on "Lie Down" has had good results, and she'll drop just about anywhere most of the time, regardless of what Coby is doing. Sometimes he is tripping over her, but she ignores him if I'm giving a command. This is vital before we start sheep long as she doesn't ignore the sheep in the same manner!

As a variation from our usual throw/fetch with the tennis ball, I've been working with two balls at once. This is extra challenging because once in awhile Coby will leave his stick and come grab a ball. We let him, and instantly re-direct to the other ball.

I'm especially impressed with the impulse control we've gotten on "Lie Down" "Stay" with a new game. I put her down near me, then throw one ball one direction, the other ball the other direction. She will actually stay in place when two balls are being thrown AND Coby is leaping after them right next to her! This is a pretty incredible feat of self-restraint and obedience!

Then what joy the command of "That one!" brings as I direct her which one to go get first! Off she tears, grabs it, brings it back, drops it in my hand, waits to see whether I will throw it again or tell her to go find the other one. Sometimes that depends on whether Coby is going after the other one.

Today, I introduced a new concept: "Drop it in the bucket", instead of "Drop it in my hands". She is trying so hard to understand! She is very intent, but puzzled. I hold the bucket in front of me, cup a hand inside it for her to drop the ball into. It just about blows her mind! Now and then she gives a sharp little bark of frustration at not understanding, and we switch to some other game for a little while to let her unwind. But even when she is frustrated, I can tell she loves the challenge of learning new things. She WANTS to understand and do what I ask of her.

By the end of this evening's romp, she was beginning to actually get the ball into the bucket now and then, without me having to dodge the bucket around to try to catch the ball.

Next we'll take out a couple more balls, and have her gather more balls at each throw...more balls to put in the bucket before I start throwing again. The bucket is important because I won't always be wearing a coat with large enough pockets for multiple balls. And the bigger task of fetching more balls, one by one, gives me more time to think: "NOW what can I teach the Border Collie?"

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Double Trouble--But Worth It

Not one but TWO escapes from the farm today by the quicksilver canine.

First, she slipped through a sheep pen gate as I struggled to maneuver a load of logs through it, and found a hole in the "fence" between the woodlot and the neighbor's in the blink of an eye. We were right on her tail and retrieved her from the mobile home park down the block within minutes. She had been confined to the vacant sheep pen where we were working, so we had taken her leash off so she wouldn't tangle on the brush we were moving.

Renewing our caution, I kept her on the leash when we were working in the garden, but didn't tie her. She obeys much better when she's dragging the leash, and I can step on it to get her attention if she's ignoring me. She's been respecting the electronet fence across the back yard, even without it being energized, stopping until I lift it and say "come under". But apparently she slipped under it, and we had left both the woodlot and driveway gates unlatched. Before we realized she was gone, a stranger rounded the corner of the barn, calling out to us, "Hey, is this your dog? She was at __ & ___ [5 blocks away]." She seemed totally unabashed...she had made a new friend. "Nice dog," he says.

Rolling my eyes. Restraining my temper. Recalling the most memorable lesson from the AKC Puppy Kindergarten class: If you leave the puppy in the living room, and it chews up the couch, roll up a news paper and hit your self over the head with it, saying sternly, "Don't leave the puppy with the couch! Don't leave the puppy with the couch!" Right. And don't take your eye off the Border Collie for an instant. Ever.

But there were many high points, too. This morning, we reviewed yesterday's progress and added one more command: "Leave it." With her in a "Down" "Stay", I would place the tennis ball a couple feet away from her and say "Leave it." She was pretty good at waiting until I said "Pick it up" and "Drop it in my hand." Later in the wood lot, when I was moving chunks of firewood, I asked her to pick up the small ones and put them on the woodpile. She actually seemed to understand...and even left them on the woodpile.


Later, we decided to merge the two groups of sheep and see what would happen. It's that time at the end of breeding when we try to reintegrate all the little breeding groups into one or two larger groups, to minimize chores. With 3 official breeding rams this season, as well as a couple intact male market lambs, it can be tricky. Rams will often try to kill each other.

Tuesday, we put the two younger breeding rams (White Crow, 9 months, and Patchface, a year and 9 months) together with the market lambs (i.e., two smaller ram lambs plus some ewe lambs). There was some pushing and ramming between Crow and Patchface, but they seemed to settle down pretty quickly. We ran all the mature ewes into the pen with Braithe, our senior ram.

My goal is to start Sookie working with the market lambs, since they're smaller and much less assertive than the big ewes and rams. I thought maybe we could work them with Patchface and Crow in the group, but Patchface seemed pretty assertive towards the dog. So...could we actually get Braithe, Patchface, and Crow--500+ lbs. of testosterone-infused muscle--to peacefully coexist in the same pen?

I took Sookie into the Green Barn Pen on the long leash, and drove the young rams and market lambs into the barn with her in tow. She seemed confused, and distracted by all that tempting manure, but she showed some interest in the sheep as well. At one point, one of the rams broke away from the flock and ted back behind me. I called out "Look!" and she actually did! We went after him (and the other one that followed him) and got them back without the rest of the group turning back, too. Then, to the cry of "Put 'em in the barn!" Sookie and I were able to walk the group into the barn. A good beginning.

Then we went to drive Braithe and the ewes over from the pen on the other side of the back yard. First we rounded up a few ewes that hadn't come to meet us at the gate. Sookie paid attention well, and  seemed to be more interested than with the lambs. When we got them gathered at the gate, M. opened the gate and they poured out into the broad grassy lane. Of course they were more interested in eating grass than in going to the barn...but as Sookie and I moved behind them, they quickly changed their minds. Except for a couple older ones, who looped back behind us. I said "Look back!" and turned after them, and--Sookie looked and went the right direction to run them back to the rest of the flock! Then everyone ran to the barn pen.

The barn pen has a particularly nice bale of hay in it at the moment, and Braithe didn't even blink an eye at all the rams in the barn. So, I let the young rams and market lambs out with the rest of the group. There was some sniffing and chasing, but no significant ramming. Braithe spent most of his first couple for penned with other rams, and he and Patchface were penned together ever since his return to the farm last spring; I hoped he would have fond memories of this. We were working nearby, so we kept an eye on them in case violence erupted, but eating seemed to be everyone's top priority. In a few days we'll sort out the lambs, and have a breeding group and a working group.


The end of the working day should have been another session with the tennis ball, but alas, we could not find it. The second one had disappeared a few days earlier. Are the coyotes playing with them and carrying them off? It's a mystery. Sookie looked and looked, and so did I. Disappointing. We went home to dinner and a quiet evening.

As I knitted with Sookie curled in my lap, I pondered the dilemma of the missing ball. We'll have a friend's dog as a house guest starting tomorrow morning, so getting in a good romp before meeting the very bouncy Coby seemed important, not to mention continuing to build on our recent training work. But every time I thought about going to a store 10 days before Christmas, I winced. Eventually, I thought of Luna (Toss's daughter) and her person B. Maybe they had spares?

A phone call and a few minutes later, we were on Luna's doorstep. Luna was her grumpy self about there being another dog, but Sookie displayed excellent manners and turned away with quiet dignity whenever Luna showed her teeth. Sookie entirely ignored the cats, but managed to slip through the cat door to the cat food not once but twice! I didn't want to get her too wound up chasing balls to show off her moves, so I took the risk of testing her on her newest sequence of commands in "public". Like clockwork, on command, she laid down, I placed the ball on the floor nearby, she "leaved it", and on command she picked it up and dropped it in my cupped hands!

Now I'm wondering, can I teach her to fetch tools for me when I'm working? Will she be able to tell the  difference between phillips and flathead screwdrivers?

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Triple Triumph

This training of Sookie is a slow unfolding--significant progress each day, but it's only visible if I look really closely. The reminders applies to all of my life, especially to all my relationship: be in the moment, pay attention, expect perfection, look for the successes and not the failures.

She still runs away and doesn't seem to hear me, if she has slipped out of the house yard fence without the leash, or if she is intent on tracking some enticing smell on the way to the romping ground. I need to bite my tongue rather than fruitlessly call again and again. If she doesn't want to give me her attention, when she is off-leash, there is no way I can get it. I can only trust that in time, she will be so completely interested in what I will ask of her next that she will always have a bit of her attention on me, ready for the next adventure. That, and eventually the smells of the farm may seem less compellingly exotic to her city-raised nose.

I was distracted and aloof at the romping ground this morning. We actually didn't get there until this afternoon, because of a thought-provoking meeting this morning followed by various follow-up calls and emails. I had taken my pruning shears, and let her play on her own while I cut out wild grape vines that are a potential tripping hazard. We tossed the ball a little bit, with her dancing and throwing her head around and rapidly mouthing the ball every time she brought it. She was coming right to me and letting me take it from her mouth, but it was a lot of dodging and grabbing to get it, and my leather gloves saved my hands from a lot of little bruises from accidentally colliding with her teeth and jaws.


This evening we went out again at dusk. When I let her off the leash, she went out looking for the ball, round and round the Hugelkulture piles, but couldn't find it. It's hard to see in the clumpy grass in the twilight. I wandered around looking, too. When I found it, I called her to me, and she eventually came. I pointed at the ball with my outstretched arm and pointing finger, saying "Look!" She would look deep into my eyes, tongue hanging out, trying to discern what I wanted. "Look!" I would point again. Her gaze on my face was unwavering, 100% Border Collie intensity.

We've done this before, many times, when I'm trying to show her a lost ball that I found. I usually start 5 or 6 feet from the ball, then gradually get closer until my finger is nearly touching the ball, repeating the command while looking at the ball myself. I lock eyes with her and then deliberately shift my line of sight to the ball, hoping she'll follow. I have never gotten her to pay attention to my hand, unless to paw at it and examine it.

But this evening, when I got within a couple feet of the ball, she shifted her gaze to my hand, and instantly pounced on the ball. Success! We did it a couple more times through the evening, and I could tell she had finally begun to grasp the concept of looking where I was pointed/looking, instead of at my face.

This seems trivial, but in working sheep it's critical. If she's sent out to gather the flock, and can't find them, I might need to direct her towards them by pointing them out and saying "look!", if verbal left/right commands aren't working to direct her towards them. And if she leaves one behind when gathering the flock, I'll need to tell her to "Look back" so she can return for the straggler.

That seems like a small difference in commands--"Look" and "Look back". Someone who has struggled to convey the simple concept of "sit" to a mere ordinary dog might wonder whether a dog could tell the difference between the two. Well, my old Toss not only knew these very similar-sounding commands, she understood "here" (i.e., come here) and "here here!" (pay attention to something else over this way) as totally different commands.

These similar commands underscore the vital importance of the trainer being consistent, especially in the beginning as the dog and handler get to know and understand one another, or when introducing new commands and concepts. In many ways, training Sookie is all about training myself. I must be very consistent in my use of words and gestures if I'm to succeed in communicating with her.

Another crucial aspect of the "look!" command is that it is a step in breaking her preoccupation with looking directly at me for commands. This is often an artifact of conventional obedience training, where the emphasis is on having the dog's visual attention on you at all times, as it awaits commands...unlike in a herding situation where the dog must keep its eyes on the sheep to control them, and only listen to the handler.


Once we found the ball, I just sat in one place and let her bring it to me. No gloves this evening (it was a very nice afternoon, still pleasant at dusk without being totally bundled up), so it wasn't long before my fingers were cringing from crashing into her teeth as she mouthed the ball and tossed her head each time she brought it back. OK, time for the next level. Now she needs to PLACE the ball in my cupped hands, instead of flirting with me and making me take it from her. "Drop it in my hands" I tell her, over and over, as she dances around me. Later we'll work on the all-important non-specific "drop it"--usually meaning "put down that disgusting dead thing you found before you get one step close to me!"

Total attention now, and total patience. I need to respond lightning quick when she releases the ball, to close my hands on it just when it is loose in her mouth. And I need to NOT take the ball unless she releases it. I begin by using a lighter and lighter touch to take the ball from her, until I'm not grabbing it enough to get it away from her. She WANTS me to throw the ball, so she is invested in this. How can she get me to throw the ball? I have to make this segue gradually enough that she doesn't lose interest, I have to throw the ball now and then, we have to succeed. And I have to make a big deal out of each success, however small.

As my touch lightens, as we succeed a few times, as the edge wears off her energy at bit from chasing and bringing back the ball,  suddenly I can see that she GETS it--she understands. She's still dancing and tossing and chomping and generally being a moving target--but if my hands are cupped in the right place at the right time, the ball is somehow released into them, falling just fraction of an inch. YAY! YOU DID IT! GOOD DOG! and she is petted lavishly before the ball is thrown again. Suddenly she's releasing the ball into my hand with less and less dancing, and dropping it from higher (measured in fractions of an inch, still). What a great feeling!


Of course, throughout this process, there are many times when the ball is dutifully dropped, but it lands on the ground instead of in my hands. I could have used this to work on "drop it", but thought that would confuse the issue. Instead, we took advantage of the situation to also work on "pick it up", which she also had figured out by the end of the session. Not that she's graceful, reliable, prompt, or accurate, but she knows what I mean. We have communicated: we have "created a shared meaning", in the words of my college communication class many years ago. The rest will come with practice (another word for "play").

So, this evening, we "got" three new important concepts/commands in one session. Considering that a week ago, she wouldn't even bring the ball back to me, I'm pretty amazed at the rate of progress we've made.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Dog Tired

Every day is full and busy, more than ever, with Sookie in the picture.

We go to the "romping pen" every morning and evening for a 15-30 minute session that is play/exercise mixed with training. Additional training happens on the way there and back, and really whenever she's with me and whatever we do. It is mentally exhausting for me, after awhile, even though it's very rewarding for both of us.

She is an amazingly intelligent dog and a quick learner. I joked to Dad last night that after all these years, I would have to learn calculus. "Whatever for?" he asked. "Because I'm going to run out of things to teach this dog in a few years, and I may have to teach her calculus."

When I met Sookie, she and her owner and his other BC, Lucy, were playing with a tennis ball. The rules were: A. throws the ball. If Lucy catches it, it's Lucy's ball to dance around with and dare everyone else to try to get. If Sookie catches it, it's Lucy's ball to...and Sookie would tag after, run circles around Lucy, etc. A common dynamic between an older dog and a younger dog.

In solo play, this amounted to Sookie playing keep-away with me. Eventually she would bring the ball somewhere near me, and I would manage to snag it out from under her nose at some point to throw it again...or pick it up while she was distracted with the Hugelkulture pile.

When she had the ball, she would lie down "on command" at a distance IF she were already stopped and just standing there, and was ready to lie down. But when she was running, there was no stopping her. Ever. She would eventually honor a "come here" command, and then lie down (on command) at my feet with much ado.

This was fun for both of us, to a point, but it all added up to a lot of exercise for me, trying to get the ball back to throw it to exercise her. And it wasn't a very good foundation for her eventual work with sheep. Before she can go in with the sheep, she needs to lie down instantly on command, no matter where she is. And she needs to "come" when called. Without these two basics, I would have no control at all with her off-leash in with the sheep.

So. This is how smart this dog is: Sunday morning I got tired of the "keep-away" game. I had figured out that she would "come"and "bring the ball" much better if I were squatting down, so I did that. I wouldn't throw the ball unless she would let me get it without me moving from my squatting position. I did a lot of reaching! By the end of the session, she had figured out to bring me the ball and leave it on the ground near me. If it was too far, I would fruitlessly reach, and she would eventually pick it up and put it closer to me.

Sunday afternoon, she clearly remembered this new rule: if she wants the ball thrown, she has to bring the ball to me. After squatting a few times, I stood up, and she had to bring the ball where I could reach it from standing up. Again, lots of reaching! But she figured that out, and was "coming" pretty reliably even when I was standing.

Monday morning, I made her "hand" me the ball without me reaching down to the ground. She was doing great by the end of the session...though an on-looker would see something like the blur of a hummingbird at a feeder, as she dances back and forth around my legs darting her muzzle with the ball between my hands, mostly too fast for me to grab the ball. When I do manage to get my hands on the ball, she releases it to me instantly...much better than Toss ever did. I would have to activate pressure points on Toss's jaws to get her to release a ball, until she learned that the hand coming under her chin meant "drop". She never honored the word.

This evening, we started working on getting her to drop the ball into my hands. Didn't quite get there, but we were both tired from working sheep and having a lot of visitors today.

Sookie's "come" has vastly improved during these past couple days, too. She hurls herself at me like a  freight train, often running a tight loop or two around me in her enthusiasm before stopping at my feet. I am trying to introduce the concept of "easy" (a slow, controlled walking pace), but it is going to take some practice! Something we work on at the end of a lesson, when that raw energy has worn down a little.

Meanwhile, during these same sessions we worked on "down" wherever she was, especially trying to get her to drop instantly in the middle of a "come". She's made rapid progress, and as of today will do an instant drop mid-run off-leash while we are walking out to the "romping ground". Very impressive!

Now that she is better at "come", as well as being familiar with staying on the garden lanes, she can drag her lead or be entirely off-lead a lot more once we are behind the protective gates of the farm. I still don't trust her not to go explore the neighborhood, after she led me on a 20 minute romp through the neighborhood in my sock feet with no cell phone on her third day here. But little by little, she is learning that her life is fun, safe, and interesting if she hangs out with me and does what I ask.

Tonight, there is no trouble with paws interrupting me while I write. We went to the "romping ground" 3 times today, plus she watched as we moved and worked sheep for several hours. By the end of the day, when I went back out to do one more sheep chore, she opted to stay in her kennel in the house instead of going out with me. I was surprised, but honored her choice. As I write this, she is sound asleep flopped on her side on a folded blanket under the desk. Pooped pup!

I'm pooped, too. Not just physically, but also mentally. This level of training takes a lot of concentration and self-discipline.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Drink Your Dried Fruit

Life is not all about dogs, although sometimes the dog seems to think so. Sometimes it is about warming up and refueling after a long romp/training session on a cool winter morning. And that, of course, means a hot cup of tea...and a little something.

I love dried fruit, but it's so easy to eat a lot. And with the amazing home-dried locally grown fruit that Mom makes for the whole extended family, there is a limited supply. And dried fruit stuck to your teeth is not a whole lot healthier than candy stuck to them.

On my Canadian adventure, I was given a gift of uniquely Canadian tea. It was composed of dried Saskatoon berries, dried blueberries, etc.: all real chunks of fruit. You put a couple teaspoons in a pot, poured on boiling water, stuck it under a cozy for awhile, and presto! Canada summer in a cup! Add a little cream, and it was like ice cream only warm!

Lately I realized I could do the same thing with Mom's dried fruit. I still use a tea bag, but then select a few pieces of complementary flavored dried fruit, and put the big chunks in before pouring the water. When I get to the bottom of the cup of fruity tea, the fruit chunks are delightfully soft and warm to scoop up with the spoon. I get the most enjoyment possible out of a few pieces, and nothing stuck to my teeth.

My winter tea corner now occupies the whole end of the kitchen table, double decker: electric tea kettle, mugs, boxes and bags of tea, tea strainers, homegrown honey (not needed with bit of homegrown stevia or a slice of dried pear) and jars of Mom's dried fruit. Also a jar of candied ginger, because one of Mom's favorite "teas" is just a slice of candied ginger in a cup of hot water. Refreshing and warming.

In the refrigerator, there are more tea fixin's: jars of jam...many flavors, but especially strawberry. Somewhere when I was a child we read about "Russian tea"--plain black tea with a spoonful of strawberry jam mixed in. Also cream or half-and-half.

My current favorite combo is dried home-grown figs in a cup of peach-flavored herbal tea, with a little half-and-half. Hopefully next year we will get a supply of frozen sheep milk/sheep cream laid by, for even more luxurious homegrown winter tea.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Basic Training

Meeting Patchface, Penny and Jenny.

Totally airborne! This great shot was just random chance...there are more photos of just the grass, because she was out of the frame before  the camera and I could respond!

Sookie's toybox...the Hugelkulture pile and waste wool composting area.

 I remembered the camera this morning when we went out for our morning romp/field training session in the East Margin Pen. She is a much easier dog to photograph than any of my other Border Collies, who were/are all camera shy. She's a bit of a ham, but mostly she's like this whether the camera is on her or not.

She continues to amaze me with her ability to learn. The gate/door thing (wait/come through) is coming along nicely, and we're already doing some off-leash work with it at the front door. I try hard to be totally random about it--sometimes I step through and close the door in her face, sometimes I send her through before I go through, all different variations so she learns to listen for the command and not for a particular gesture, time, or routine.

She is a very "footy" dog, with several related habits that I'm trying to change. One is that she is constantly trying to check out the dishes in the kitchen sink, the crumbs on the dining table, etc.--putting her feet up and of course the head follows, with that slim nose reaching out as far as possible. Another is that when I am working at the computer, she frequently paws at me, puts her feet on the chair next to me, etc. She also puts her feet up on the door sometimes when we're approaching it, and sometimes puts her feet up or paws at me when she comes to me.

Most of these behaviors are relatively inconsequential now. But any day--I hope!--we will have wet weather again, and then those sweet spotted paws will be muddy/manurey. It won't be so cute then!

I don't like animals around my food, so cats AND dogs are not allowed on my tables or counters. Discouraging the habit of cleaning up the dishes after me is a challenge, because she usually does it when I'm not in the room. Sometimes I hear tell-tale sounds, and can rush in and reproach her. She clearly knows she isn't supposed to do this! But mostly, I need make sure there isn't a food reward for her searching. The butter dish and crackers that I like to keep on the table during chili season are now in a heavy covered casserole dish, I clear the dishes and food off the table as soon as I get up, and brush off the crumbs. So it looks like once again a dog will teach me to become a better housekeeper! Toss taught me to make my bed...because when the Border Collie comes in from the sheep pens on a muddy day, the bed best be all made up if you want to sleep in clean sheets. A huge part of training a Border Collie is training oneself. That is one reason I've waited so long after Toss's death...wanting to be sure I was ready to retrain myself.

The relentless pawing at me while I'm at the computer has really bugged me, so much that last night I finally put her in her crate so that I could get anything done. It's important that I do this BEFORE I'm irritated with her, so she doesn't associate the crate with punishment. But I really don't want to have to lock her up to work; I like petting her head (at my initiative, not at her demand) while I'm waiting for the stupid little spinning beach ball on my Mac. What to do?

I had an insight today: I'm rewarding her with attention (what she wants, because the computer is getting it) by brushing away her paws each time she puts them up. It becomes a game, like the "Slap Hands" game Dad used to play with us when we were kids. So today, I've disciplined myself to instantly get up and go do something else--even just walk in a circle around the room--while studiously ignoring her, the moment that paw comes up. Also, I try to remember what she wants--attention and praise--and give it to her when she is respecting my desire to focus on the computer.

The first few computer sessions throughout the day, I didn't get much done on the computer, but I did get a lot of exercise. This evening has been a major improvement. For awhile, she went and lay in the crate on her own accord. Now she is laying quietly at my feet. She's also motivated me to get up and finish reupholstering the dining chairs, improve the barricade protecting the cat box, put some linens away, etc. Fortunately I'm a bit ADD, and I frequently switch tasks anyhow.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

A Good First Day

Today I took Sookie around the main parts of the farm, just getting familiar with her, and letting her learn her way around the farm a bit. I kept her on a long lead, so that she couldn't get into (too much) trouble. That way I wouldn't have to correct her very much, we could put off some unhappy lessons like the electric fences, and we could just focus on bonding and trust building, along with me assessing her current level of training, inclinations, style, etc., and introducing a few basic commands.

Sookie is very much a "nose dog". Toss was not...she could be 3 inches from a hidden ball and not find it, and she rarely tracked things with her nose. If she couldn't see it, it didn't exist. I noticed Sookie's nosiness as soon as we headed towards my car, after her previous owner had driven away leaving the two of us in the fenced dog park.  As soon as I let her out the gate (on leash, of course!), she made a bee-line to my car. Sort of. Her nose was to the pavement the whole time--she was barely looking at the car. I realized instantly that she was following the scent of her blanket that A.M. had carried over and placed in my back seat, with one corner dragging the ground. I opened the door as she approached it, and she literally followed her nose up and into the back seat without a pause!

This morning we spent some time out in the East Margin Pen, where there is plenty of room to run, and dog-proof fences that aren't electric. I took the tennis ball with us, but even when I unclipped her lead, she wasn't very interested. Too much to smell!

Our farm waste disposal area is in that pen, and she took special delight in a composting pile of old wool. Why didn't I think to take my camera? The look on her face was priceless when she came up for air after burrowing in the loose pile, festooned with dreadlocks of various natural colors.

Penny, Jenny and Patchface came up to stand at the fence and meet her, curious. The ewes stomped a bit, and Sookie barked at them and ran back and forth, but those new smells in the grass were far more enticing. Still, she came back to watch and bark at the sheep several times.

This off-leash time, in addition to all the on-leash time we spent before and after, gave me a chance to evaluate some of her previous training, and get some ideas for her training program for the next little while. She'll lie down instantly on command at a distance if she's stopped already, and she'll instantly come on command (at a dead run!), but she won't stop running and lie down if I call her and then tell her to lie down. Turning her "lie down" into a full "stop" is an essential foundation for her future herding training.

A big challenge has been going through doors and gates. In a normal home, it's not a big deal if the dog bolts out as soon as the door is opened, like a racehorse out of a starting gate. But on the farm, I need her to let me make the decision about whether, and when, she is coming through a gate. For safety reasons, this is something I try to teach all "my" dogs, even those that are just guests for a few days: "wait" until I say "come through". This is a very valuable habit because it means the handler's voice, not the physical gate, is the barrier. I can open a gate and get something through it (a sheep, a bucket, a garden cart, etc.), without having the dog in the way, and end up with the dog on whichever side I want. It's also important for the safety of the dog, because some of our gates are springy and can startle a dog by suddenly "biting" them. This can lead to even worse bolting, as the dog becomes afraid of being attacked by the gate, and therefore bolts through as quickly as possible to try to reduce the risk. Of course, this just increases everyone's risk.

She is such a quick learner! The habit of bolting can be really hard to break, especially with an excited, energetic dog like Sookie. But by the end of the day, with many gate and door experiences as we puttered around at various small tasks on the farm and at home, she had clearly gotten an idea of what I want. In several situations (that I noticed), she actually stopped as we approached an already-open gate, BEFORE I gave the command to "wait". Coming and going out the front door of the house is getting calmer, too.

How do I teach this? First, I have the dog on the lead close to me as we approach the door. I arrange for the dog to be on the door post side of my body, so that the dog will try to pass between me and the door post instead of between me and the door. I ask the dog to "sit" and "wait", and praise both commands (this builds on commands the dog already knows): "GOOD sit! GOOD wait". I wait for the dog to relax a bit, for the attention to be at least a little diverted from the door. Then I slowly begin to operate the door, reinforcing both commands. If the dog stands up, I cease the "sit" command, and continue repeating and praising the "wait" command. If the dog tries to press towards the door as I open it, I interfere with my outstretched foot blocking her path. If I have to, I close the door again and walk the dog off a couple steps, starting over with the "sit" and "wait". Eventually, I manage to get the situation set up to where the door is open, and the dog is standing or sitting near it, without struggling to get out...hopefully paying attention to me, and not the door or whatever is beyond. My foot may or may not still be between the dog and the opening, depending on the level of success we're having. From this position, when things are calm, I give the "come through!" command at the same time I remove my foot and step away from the opening so that the dog has the freedom to step through. Then I myself through after the dog, and praise the dog profusely. I try to keep the leash fairly short but slack) throughout, so that if the dog does rocket through at the last moment, she'll hit the end of the lead and stop, and will be close enough to enjoy her reward of praise and ear scritches.

This sort of training is, obviously, very time consuming and requires a great deal of patience and attention. But the payoff, long term, is significant. Eventually, like Toss, there will be little need for leash, doors or gates--at least when she is with me. Our mutual bond will control her movements, as she remembers to ask me for instructions at each threshold. As with Toss, over time, our communication with one another will become so refined that the question and answer--"may I go through now?" "yes, please!" will transacted effortlessly, even wordlessly, through the briefest of tones and gestures. It will become part of a grand dance that we do, that incredibly complicated dance I call "farming".

She is pretty much a poster child for the importance of crate training. She is happy being in the crate, and instantly relaxes once she's there, although she will sometimes make a feeble attempt to avoid my request that she go in it. When she just won't stop pestering me, and I need both hands to type, I'll give her some lovin' and then put her in the crate for awhile so we can both chill a bit. Also, when I've had to be off-farm today, I know that she's been safe and not getting into any trouble, because she's in the crate.

As you might imagine, she is in the crate now. Otherwise, I would not have gotten this written!