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.

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