Saturday, August 17, 2013

Ernie's Progress - and the Ultimate Goal!

It's been more than a week, but I wanted to add another installment to the ongoing saga of my attempts to work with Ernie, our youngest border collie.  On August 8, Ernie and I moved approximately 140 ewes and lambs from the Allender property in Auburn back to Oak Hill Ranch.  Ernie worked great - he took my "lie down" at the gate, letting the sheep walk through without succumbing to the temptation to rush them through the gap and get to their heads.  I even got him to lie down and "look back" - not an easy task for those of you who train border collies for trial work!  Most impressively, he took my flank commands even when they ran counter to his instincts!

Since then, I've used him several times for short moves and for holding sheep while I rearrange fencing.  For the most part, he's been great.  He still thinks he needs to beat me to the work sometimes - running to the head of the flock rather than staying behind it, like I'm asking.  Nonetheless, he's made real improvement - and he has allowed me to call him off the work every time I've asked him.  I'm pleased!

Last Saturday, however, I had a reminder of our ultimate goal.  We were at a soccer tournament about 12 miles from the ranch when I got a call from a neighbor that the sheep were out.  I hopped in the truck and raced home for a dog - and Mo was the first dog at the gate.  We continued on to the ranch and found that the sheep were indeed outside the electric fence.  In fact, there were two groups - far enough apart that we couldn't see the second group from the hillside were we first arrived.

I sent Mo, and he did a beautiful wide outrun - not coming into contact with the sheep until he was balanced with me (which means he could retrieve them on a straight line to me).  As they approached, I asked Mo to lie down and look back - even though neither one of us could see the other group of sheep.  I sent him on a blind outrun and waited.  In about 3 minutes, the rest of the sheep crested the hill and came straight for me - Mo had found them and had remembered where I was during the process.  Not only was this an impressive show of instinct on Mo's part; it saved me at least 20 minutes of walking back to find the other group of sheep, re-gathering the first group, and putting them back in the pasture.  I made it to the soccer game about 5 minutes into the first half!

Mo has been an exceptional dog.  He's very sensitive, but incredibly talented!  Ernie is not quite so talented, and he's always pushing on me to determine the limits of what I'll put up with.  On the other hand, Mo's sensitivity means that he'll quit working when he's too hot - he'll leave a group of sheep to find a pond or water trough in which he can cool off.  Ernie, by contrast, will keep working until the job is done.  In my work, there's a need for both types of dog (or, ideally, a dog that combines Ernie's stamina with Mo's talent).  I think it's a lifetime worth of effort on my part to find that dog!

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