After a five week herding hiatus due to Shelby’s heat cycle, we made the two hour (one-way) trek back out to Bangor, PA for another tending lesson with the wonderful Carolyn Wilki at Raspberry Ridge Sheep Farm. If you’re in the area, check her out, trust me, you’ll love her! http://www.raspberryridgesheepfarm.com/index.aspx
The day did not get off to a good start. Because Shelby gets carsick, I don’t feed her breakfast before we go to herding (she gets enough treats while she is there anyway). Well, apparently, she decided to make a meal of some of her poo instead. Still, off we went. About an hour into our journey, Shelby was drooling terribly, and I knew she would be puking soon. Confident in my blanket placement, I drove on. Moments later, I smelled something vile emanating from the backseat. I looked through my rear view mirror, adjusting it to see the seat. There was Shelby. She puked – her poo. Seriously gross. Good thing I was on a highway with no paper towels and no way to pull over. Valiantly, we trudged on. After four more puke-poo episodes, I was glad I went with the leather upholstery. Finally, we were able to get off the highway and find a convenience store, and I was able to get Caroline (my Ford Mustang) and Shelby cleaned up.
So we were late (I wish I could say this wasn’t uncommon), but Carolyn was still working on fetching with a couple of Border Collies anyway (probably because she is very aware of my lateness problem by now), so I tied Shelby to a post in Carolyn’s front yard with her water bowl and worked on some calming exercises with her while I experimented with my new lens.
When I told Carolyn about our car ride (after she saw the three puke bags sitting outside my car), she told me how “charming” Shelby is and suggested I take her for a nice long run in the paddock while she worked with an Aussie and ducks.
Shelby hit the field with her normal puppy exuberance, making sure to check back with me every thirty seconds or so, then trotting ahead or running to sniff a rock or wandering the tree lines, munching sheep poop along the way, which, of course, I felt was just plain rude. I snapped photos of her and walked along the furrows of the huge paddock, completely at peace with the moment. I always have to remind myself that she’s a puppy still. Even though she’s taken on the look of a full grown German Shepherd and has begun to fill out a little since her heat, she’s still got some puppy brain, dog ADHD if you will, but I admire the way she charges at life like she charges at her beloved sheep.
As soon as she saw the sheep in the driving pen, she began galloping toward them. I decided to take the opportunity to get some photos of her in her element, and I’m glad I did.
After she had her share of soaking in the sheep, I put the camera down and decided to work on her recalls off of sheep. Recalling off of sheep is one of the more difficult things we have to do. Obviously, sheep are quite the distraction for a herding dog. For that reason, I decided to take advantage of the three sheep in the center pen and conduct a little experiment. Shelby goes absolutely bonkers when she is in close proximity to a large flock of sheep. She’s a tending dog, large groups of just about anything get her excited (except ducks, which she seems to not care for at all, for whatever reason). But what about being close to just these three?
I waited for her to become engaged with the sheep, then I called, “That’ll do.” Shelby immediately slammed her head toward me and trotted back. When she sat at my feet, I proceeded to throw a party for about 30 seconds, feeding her treats one after another as quickly as I could. “That’ll do” is more than “Come”, which always seems to get poisoned at some point. “Come” is such a loaded word. It’s the word that many of us use for “come here and get your nails trimmed” or “come here and get in the bath” or “come here and let’s go inside even though you’re having a grand old time with your doggy neighbor buddy”. “Come”, while reliable with Shelby, will not cut it when it comes to sheep. So we started working on “That’ll do” about three weeks ago.
“That’ll do” is the granddaddy of all recalls. “That’ll do” means two things – 1. You get a party and constant treats for about 30 seconds or you get to lick out of a peanut butter jar or a cream cheese container for 30 seconds and 2. After that, you get to go back to doing whatever it was that you were doing before. I utilize the Premack Principle for “That’ll do”, and it has become one of our most reliable cues. It still needs work, as everything does, but this cue has become almost sacred in a short period of time. “That’ll do” is also something that we practice away from Joe, who I know will be tempted to use it as an emergency recall or for when it’s raining or cold and he just wants Shelby to come inside, where it can potentially become poisoned. Shelby’s herding language is like a secret code we share, and we both appreciate the game.
Run complete, warming up exercises over, Shelby and I made our way over to the side paddock bordering the main course, warmly named the “Killing Fields”. Cindy and her handsome Aussie, along with Carolyn in her golf cart, drove a large flock of sheep over the hill to border the Killing Fields while another trainee and his English Sheep Dog gathered the sheep in the driving pen and the smaller tending pen to fetch those sheep which then joined the rest of their flock. As soon as the sheep were gathered, I took Shelby off her leash, and she began to tend up and down the length of the fence of the Killing Fields like she’d never missed a day of practice.
Pleased with Shelby’s progress, Carolyn handed me a 50 foot long line and instructed us to come into the main paddock with the large flock of sheep. I beamed, but couldn’t help but feel my heart skip a few beats. I worried at the length of the line, which didn’t feel like it gave me enough control to keep Shelby from eating the sheep. I worried about how I kept getting the line all tangled and knotted and jumbled and stuck on tree branches and briers and wondered how I was going to focus on not breaking my camera, not tangling the line and not allowing Shelby to attack any sheep all at the same time. I took a deep breath, forced myself not to think about the cost of a replacement sheep and moved forward. If Carolyn thought we were ready, we most likely were.
As it turns out, we were, well, Shelby was, at least. As soon as Shelby hit the furrow, she was trotting back and forth on the border without much assistance from me. When she crossed the furrow, I ceased my praise, clicks and treats and moved in front of her to body block her and guide her back into the furrow, telling her “Out” as I did. As soon as she got back in the furrow, I clicked and treated.
The sheep, noting the presence of the dog, moved twenty feet or so away, while Carolyn used her golf cart to tend the other border, ruing the fact that there were so many dogs training at her farm that day, wishing she could get her own German Shepherds out to tend the other side. Carolyn noted that the sheep moved further away from Shelby than they ever had. I commented that it could have something to do with the fact that Shelby maybe took a little nibble at a couple of them the lesson before, but didn’t break skin. Carolyn chuckled and said that was possible, but Shelby appeared to be gaining confidence and calmness, and the sheep were picking up on that, which was a good thing.
As I jogged up and down the furrow with my little working dog, I noticed there was a crowd gathering at the fence nearest us. A car that was leaving even stopped to watch our practice. Instantly nervous and self-conscious, I began to slow, so Shelby was forced to turn back to me and see what the hold up on the line was. Carolyn called out to me, “Don’t look at them, and don’t hold back your dog! She’s doing great!”
I steeled myself and kept going. After about 20 minutes of solid patrolling back and forth the straight line of the border, Carolyn noted that Shelby and I were both lagging some and called a halt to the practice. I was grateful. Upon Carolyn’s arrival, Shelby immediately jumped into the passenger seat of the golf cart and stuck her nose in Carolyn’s pockets.
“She needs more steady exercise; she’s a little out of shape. She’s still thin, which is good, but she needs more muscle in her front. Start taking her on runs or ride your bike with her more.”
I nodded, and smiled at Carolyn, wiping the sweat from my brow. It was a good day for this, cool and crisp, so the exercise warmed me up and got my blood flowing.
“She’s doing really, really great though. Look at her, no fence and just barely one, that’s a huge accomplishment.”
I grinned, snapped a few pictures and took Shelby back down the furrow and out the paddock, while Carolyn sped ahead. As Shelby trotted ahead of me, I looked at the setting sun and smiled. What a wonderful way to spend the day, hard work and training to be concluded by watching my dog trot back home against the setting sun after a long day’s work. Yeah, I could get used to this.