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!

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