I've told myself several times in the last year that I should always take a dog with me when I'm checking sheep - even if I'm only expecting to have to feed a guard dog. Last night, I had to learn the lesson again - when I arrived at MC Ranch to check on a bunch of ewes that we're using to reduce fire danger for the landowner, I discovered that they'd been run through the fence by something. The 75 ewes were scattered across about 10 acres of hillside. I quickly turned around and ran home to get Ernie and Taff.
I decided to take both dogs because I would typically use 2 dogs for a job like this (usually Mo and Taff). As we approached the first group, Ernie left without being sent. Ideally, a dog should go wide around a group of sheep until he is in a position to bring them to the handler (and he shouldn't do it until asked!). Ernie hasn't learned this yet, so his "outrun" was a bee-line for the sheep, who proceeded to scatter. Taff took a more appropriate route and was able to gather the ewes and begin fetching them to me. Ernie joined Taff in this effort.
A note about Taff. He's now 10 years old and starting to slow down. He's big for a border collie (over 50 lbs without much fat), which means he's had more wear and tear from working than a smaller dog would have. He's also beginning to lose his hearing, I think. He's been a wonderful dog for ranch work - will work all day and then some - but he's always sulked if he's given too much correction. He'll also sulk if another dog gets some of the work. If the other dog is being corrected, Taff will simply shut down and quit working - which he did last night after the initial gather.
Without Taff, I relied on Ernie to bring this first group back to their paddock. While Ernie desperately wanted to get to the heads of the sheep (to bring them back to me), I was able to keep him behind this flock with me - and he actually drove them back to the pasture. We then went to retrieve the second group.
Once again, Ernie took a direct line to the sheep rather than circling around behind them. Nonetheless, he did get this smaller bunch gathered and heading back towards me. By this time, he was tired enough to accept my "lie down" command - and he again was able to do some short drives. He also opened up his flanks a bit when I asked him go around the sheep.
As always, progress comes in fits and starts - probably true with training any dog. We make progress some days - other days we seem to regress. Ernie did some things that I liked last night, but he also did some things that I found infuriating. All we can do is keep working, I guess.
I've come to realize that progress only happens when we're trying things - when there's motion. In the past, I've tended to shut things down when they aren't going right - seemed like the safest course of action. Now, I try to expose Ernie to a variety of situations and help him learn to respond appropriately. We're not always successful, but it is rewarding to see him start to figure things out. I'm most pleased about his heart and stamina - he worked last night until we were done!
This evening, we're hauling lambs back to our corrals and then walking them about a half-mile to new pasture. I haven't decided if I'll use Ernie to load the trailer - we'll be loading along a private road without the benefit of corrals, so I'll likely use Mo. Ernie, however, will help unload the trailer and take the sheep to the new place. Stay tuned....
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