I haven't posted an entry regarding Ernie's progress towards becoming a useful sheep dog for a number of weeks. My lack of reporting has been due partly to my lack of time and, frankly, due to Ernie's lack of progress. While he's shown some signs of improvement, we also seem to move backwards sometimes (not unusual in the training process, as I'm learning). When we suffer these set-backs, I try to go back to the fundamental building blocks of Ernie's training - to rebuild the foundation that our more complicated work is based upon.
I continue to use Ernie on a regular basis for tasks like moving the ewes or the feeder lambs from pasture to pasture or onto other properties. Over the last several weeks, Ernie has regressed - he's gone back to deciding that it's more fun to work for himself (rather than with me). This manifests itself in his refusal to acknowledge that I'm even in the picture when we're moving sheep - he constantly tries to get to the head of the flock and works much too close to the sheep. In some ways, he seems like he's afraid that I'll make him quit working - which he can avoid by ignoring me. At the risk of sounding overly technical, he's been a real knucklehead!
This morning, we moved approximately 175 ewes out of a 5-acre field, across a road, and into a new paddock. The ideal approach included gathering the ewes, bringing them calmly to an opening in the electro-net fencing, walking them across the road and then through another opening into the new paddock. The old paddock was on a hillside - and when we entered, the sheep were out of site. Rosie the guard dog did her best to play with Ernie, but he was all business. Even though he wanted to take off on his own, I successfully kept him at my side until we crested the hill and could see the sheep spread out below us. I asked him to lie down on my left side and then sent him on a "come-bye" or clockwise flank. While he was much too fast and a bit too close to the sheep, he did bend himself out and come around the entire flock - bringing them to my feet. Once he had them gathered, he also took a lie down command and allowed me to call him off. We walked together do the point in the fence that I planned to open to let the ewes out - and the sheep stayed put. Once the fence was open, I asked him to lie down again, and then sent him on an "away" flank. He bent himself out wide and came behind the sheep nicely. The sheep flowed towards the opening and across the road - and Ernie took my lie down command and let them come. We approached the opening into the new paddock and Ernie desperately wanted to come to their heads again; however, he took my lie down and subsequent "away" flank - and brought the whole flock through the gap. As I was closing the fence I lost site of Ernie over the hill in the new paddock, but I could tell by the behavior of the sheep that he was trying to bring them back to me. A few "that'll do" commands (which we use to call off our dogs), and Ernie trotted back to me - quite proud of himself.
A horse-farmer friend of mine, John Erskine, told me that working horses safely and successfully requires the teamster to be totally calm and totally present. I think the same applies to training and working stock dogs. I realized that during the recent occasions in which Ernie was a knucklehead my focus was divided - I was thinking about the next task rather than being totally present in the task at hand. Today, I tried to focus myself on the work we were doing - and it really showed in Ernie's efforts. A good lesson for both of us!