Sunday, November 26, 2017

The Day Mae Grew Up

Always a nice site after moving sheep - the flock spread out with heads down grazing.
As some of you may know, Mae is my youngest working dog. She's also the first female border collie that I've started, and the only border collie that I've trained entirely on my own. She's been an easy, thoughtful and trainable dog from the beginning - very different that the male dogs I've started. Don't get me wrong - Mae has her quirks, and like most border collies (and many humans I've met), she gets in trouble when she has time off. She likes to stare at the horses and mules at our home place. She enjoys barking at the leaf blower (which she learned from our older dog, Mo). But she's nearly always made good decisions when we're working sheep. And today, (as she's approaching her second birthday), she showed me that she's grown up. She's ready to take on more responsibility in our small sheep operation.

While today's work didn't involve a long move or a big gather, it was reasonably technical. We needed to gather a 4-acre paddock, bring the sheep out of the electro-net fence, walk them through a gate and past the ram paddock, then through another gate. At the second gate, the sheep needed to make a 160-degree turn up the road. After walking up the road, the sheep needed to duck through a final gate into their next paddock. The last gate was tight, so I wanted the flock somewhat strung out so they wouldn't crowd through it.

Mae and I have been working on taking flanks that are counter to her instinct to balance the sheep with me. We've also been working on taking partial flanks - border collies have a powerful instinct to get to the heads of the sheep. Finally, we've been working on bending out her outruns and flanks - ideally, a dog should take a wide route to the back of the block before making contact with their flight zones.

The sheep were ready to move when we arrived at the paddock, so about two-thirds of them headed up the hill towards us. The remaining third were still grazing at the bottom of the hill about 150 yards away. I asked Mae for a left-hand (come bye) flank. She saw the sheep at the bottom the hill and aimed herself behind them. As she started cheating in too tight, I asked her to lie down and start again. As she started, I used a harsh voice to ask her to bend out. She took the correction and bent out. It took 3 corrections, but each time, she made a good decision.

When we move sheep out of electro-net fencing, we typically wait until the flock is gathered near the point of exit. If a dog is pushing too much, the sheep will press the fence. This morning, I asked Mae to lie down behind the flock as I opened the fence. She obliged, and the sheep came through the opening calmly. We then walked to the crest of a small hill and headed towards the first gate. The sheep veered towards the ram paddock, but Mae's quarter flank to the left got them back on track - I was pleased that she took a come bye, that her flank was square (which allowed her to avoid pushing the back of the flock as she moved into position), and that she held her position when I said, "right there."
Making the turn towards the second gate.

As we approached the second gate, I again asked for a short flank to get the sheep's heads pointed towards the gate. She obliged, dropping when I asked for a lie down so I could slow the sheep and go through the gate ahead of them. As the first third of the flock passed through, I was able to "bump" the leaders lightly to get them to turn up the road. As they turned, I asked Mae for a right (away) flank to turn the rest of the flock as it came through the gate. She took the flank and settled in behind the sheep. After a short walk up the road (during which we let the flock string out a bit), I asked for a short come bye flank, and the sheep turned into the last gate and their new paddock. I called Mae off and praised her - and closed the paddock.
Strung out and walking through the last gate.

To my non-sheepdog friends, this may seem like a very simple piece of work - and I may seem overly excited about Mae's progress. To my sheep dog friends, I suspect, the tasks may seem simple but the progress of a young dog justifies my excitement. As I've written before, the bond between a working dog and its handler (regardless of the work) is much deeper and more intense than any relationship I've ever had with a pet. I've taught my pet dogs obedience, which is a totally different experience than training a dog to work (at least for me). The work that Mae and I accomplished today required 3-way communication - between man and dog, between man and sheep, and between dog and sheep. I suspect that the man in this equation (me) is the least accomplished communicator of the three species. Watching Mae think about the work and adjust her approach according to the behavior of the sheep, our relative positions on the landscape, and my verbal commands, I realized working with my dogs is one of the reasons I so enjoy shepherding. We still have more to learn (both of us), but I realized this morning that we're at a point where we can accomplish a great deal of work together. Good dog, Mae! That'll do.
Waiting for the next job!

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