Monday, July 15, 2013

Herding Progress

Herding training has been on the back burner with my efforts to keep up with harvesting and planting. Lambing interfered, as well, because the ewes were fierce and I didn't want Sookie to be badly scared or, worse, injured by a protective mama. Also, I haven't had the sheep out on the pasture much this year, for various reasons.

But nevertheless, we've been in the pens and lanes with the sheep from time to time, and Sookie definitely wants to work them. But how? They have learned, over the past few years, to basically ignore dogs, or to stomp them. The bottom line has been, neither the sheep nor the dog knew what was expected of them, and I couldn't figure out how to get past that. It seemed like if one or the other would do their part of the dance that is working sheep with a dog, the other would follow the lead and I could coach.

But what we had going on was pretty much just pandemonium.

On the few occasions when we needed to get the sheep to do something, it basically amounted to me stomping and waving and yelling at sheep, while Sookie ran around, breaking through the middle of the flock, circling endlessly, ignoring my "lie down" commands, etc. I would try to direct her while also yelling at the sheep, and we would all end up frustrated and confused. Yet if I left her out of the pen and tried to move the sheep myself (which Toss taught me to do quite efficiently), she would run around like crazy and yelp and carry on, creating a distraction.

Eventually, I've figured out the following:

--Sookie is very "loose-eyed" for a Border Collie--whether by nature or by nurture (not seeing sheep until she was 3) I don't know. She works standing up, close in to the flock, and without a lot of direct eye contact. Although she is learning to keep her eyes on the sheep more, she still looks back at me a lot. I need to accept this as her natural working style, and stop expecting her to act like Toss.

--Sookie is incredibly gutsy, and will squeeze between the sheep and a fence or shed in very tight places without showing fear. She also doesn't take it personally when a ewe charges her...she'll get scared and run for a little way, but then she wants to go right back in as soon as she realizes the ewe has refocused.

--Sookie is a master of the "fake grip". She likes to get in close and pretend to bite the sheep in the face or rump. Over time, she is gaining more response from the flock because she is hounding them like a giant horsefly buzzing in their face. This seems to be a sense of annoyance on the part of the sheep, more than fear.

--I need to figure out ways to clearly distinguish between the commands I'm giving to the sheep (our familiar "Come, sheep" call that the sheep have learned to associate with fresh pasture) and the commands I'm giving the dog ("Sookie, Come").

The other day we easily sent most of the flock out to pasture, but a few remained in the green calf shed. This shed has 3 small stalls with narrow openings onto the lane. There was one yearling in each of the outer stalls, and a young ewe with lamb in the middle stall.

The single yearlings both fell for Sookie's "suction" method of getting sheep out of the stalls. She runs past the doors repeatedly, glancing in. After a few passes, the sheep inside get so nervous that they want to run out into the open. Eventually, she runs past and as soon as she passes, the sheep pops out of the shed right behind her and follows her for a few moments. Apparently for a sheep, it feels safer to have her moving away from them than towards them. She doesn't try to "get" them in any way once they are out, unless I direct her to.

The ewe and lamb were a different story. When mild "suction" across the front of the shed didn't work, Sookie intensified her effort by running in and out, back and forth between the now-empty stalls on each side of the central stall. Even that didn't work. So she went into their stall after them, running in circles between them and the walls in the tiny (6' x 4') stall. I think if she had stopped at the back of the shed, they would have moved away from her and out the door, but she kept orbiting. On the other hand, stopping might have allowed the ewe to target her. She forced her way around, moving so quickly the ewe couldn't really target her. Then she got right in and fake-gripped the ewe's nose repeatedly. The ewe was rattled but not budging out of that shed.

I finally went into the stall, being careful to avoid putting myself in danger if the ewe decided to bolt out. The ewe finally left with her lamb, but wanted back into the stall after I emerged so I had to guard it.

I encouraged Sookie to drive them down the lane to meet the other sheep. I kept stopping her to allow them to move at a leisurely pace during the heat of the day.

During the driving, the little ewe lamb stopped to pee. Sookie was right beside it, and they were about the same size. Sookie stood while it peed, with her open mouth very close to the lamb's face in a freeze-frame "fake grip". Both animals were relaxed with no sign of fear on the lamb's part. As soon as the lamb finished peeing, and moved on, Sookie completed her stop-action fake grip. The lamb merely tossed its head away from the dog, as if avoiding a fly, and ambled on.

I can see that we are making progress. It just doesn't look like what I expect a herding BC to look like.