03 July, 2010
A fellow handler wrote a nice blog about learning to train and run her dog. I posted the following comment on her blog:
"Something that really helped me was to realize a few things after many lessons with people who actually know what they are doing... (unlike me):
1) It's my dog's job to stop when told. It's my job to teach her that.
2) It's my job to let my dog get up on her own.
3) It's my dog's job to be thoughtful when she gets up.
4) It's my job to recognize how she gets up, and stop her again immediately if she is not thoughtful when she gets up.
5) It's my job to KNOW how she is going to get up, and hit her with a steady when she gets to her feet if she needs it, to remind her to be thoughtful out of the stop. Teamwork is key. It is easy to take the sheep away. It is easy to expect my dog to think. It can be hard for me to remember to HELP my dog think so that she can have her sheep.
Not sure if that made any sense..."
Making that posting led to me reflecting on what I've learned over the past 3 years.
Lucy is the perfect dog for me. I know that I will probably never find this perfect blend again. At least that's what everyone keeps telling me: that I'll only ever have this once... so I'd better make the most of it.
Like every dog and every person, Lucy has strengths and weaknesses. My job as a trainer is to be attentive at identifying those weaknesses and devising strategies to help my dog improve her skills and confidence, minimizing weaknesses wherever I can through training and experience. My job as a handler is to always be cognizant of both my dog's strengths and her weaknesses, helping her to work to her best possible advantage without getting in her way. A trainer and a handler are not always the same thing, but it seems the best of the best are good at both.
There are times on the trial field when I have consciously left points on the field because I felt that the training opportunity (or the risk of damaging training through desperate handling) was worth the loss. There are times when I accidentally left points on the field through inexperience and poor handling. It happens, and I am learning.
Some people assume that I bought Lucy as a fully-trained Open dog so that I could step onto the field and not have to struggle. Or that I don't have the patience, skill or time to train my own dog. Or that I am a new kid with an "already-trained" dog and so I don't deserve any credit for the accomplishments Lucy and I have enjoyed this trial season so far. It really hurts my feelings when I hear things like that.
I have built the friendship I have with Lucy over a period of years. I have taken part in her training, taken lessons with her and watched her grow, guided by the work of more than one top trainer and handler. I would like to think that while greater minds than mine have trained Lucy, I've also contributed to making her the dog she is today. That may be egotistical, but its how I feel. We've walked many miles together, that red bitch and I, even long before she was my dog for keeps. I'll never forget the day I called her to my side and had her walk behind her sheep, driving for the first time.
I'd like to take a moment and say that I feel like I've worked pretty hard at this to get where I am now (which is not much of anyplace). I don't have my own sheep. I have to drive a minimum of 1 hour each way to sheep. I generally do so twice a week. I did that for 3 years without even owning my own sheepdog, working dogs Diane would loan me because she is generous and believed in me. She felt sorry for me I think when I had to retire my old dog after only a few lessons because her body couldn't stand up to the work.
I've spent many hundreds of hours learning to handle sheep, without and with a dog. I've wormed, trimmed hooves, vaccinated, sorted, pulled lambs, weaned, moved sheep up and down the road and sorted hundreds of sets for lessons both with green dogs that were just learning chores and with borrowed seasoned dogs.
I've gone to clinics, lessons and more lessons, always taking notes. I have 2 notebooks full already! I'll need another shelf soon :) I sit and watch the runs of handlers I respect, taking notes about how they work with their own dogs as well.
The best piece of training advice I've ever gotten came from Scott Glen. I walked off the field in tears that day, but I also think I DID SOMETHING about it... Lucy had been out for training with Scott for a few months to get polished for her Open debut, and I had picked her up for Diane 1 day before my lesson. I was getting back into the rhythm of working during my lesson. Scott stepped in and started whistling to my dog because I was doing a poor job. He turned to me, and said in a serious voice, "You know this dog better than I do. You know her heart. But I know this dog better on sheep. No one should ever know your dog better than you do, and until you learn that you won't succeed." He then said to me, "Your job is to always know where your dog's mind is, and be able to anticipate her next step at any instant during work. It's your responsibility to be one step ahead of the dog at all times."
It would have been easy to say "well, it's not my dog," or "that's not fair, you've had her for 3 months..." That wasn't the point. The point was I needed to step up my game, regardless of who the dog was, or who the dog belonged to.
Those 2 statements are in my mind every time I walk onto the field. I will never be able to thank Scott enough for that. He pushed me, and I think he knew he was pushing me. I cried that day, feeling like a failure for not knowing my dog. In retrospect, what I didn't know was not about my dog, but about sheep and sheepdogs in general. The more I learn about sheep and what correct work should be, as well as how the work feels from the dog's perspective, the better I've been able to know my dog and anticipate her movements.
After that day, I spent a period of time every session letting Lucy work for a brief period, staying quiet and simply studying my dog. I would either video or take notes. I took the time to learn this dog, even before I owned her.
Knowing what she will do next allows me to leave the right alone. Let my dog stay right when she is, and step in to help when she needs it.
It may sound crazy to quietly study a dog at work. Handlers are always quick to step in, assuming we know better than the dog how a situation should be handled. And we may! But until we know our dog's natural inclination in that situation, we do not know precisely the kind of help that will be best. Studying the dog at work may sound like something that only applies to a trained dog and a novice handler, but after working a fair number of young and green dogs, I'd say it applies for any dog, not just a trained dog.
So thanks for reading my rant. If you've gotten this far, you're braver than most. It really does hurt when people accuse me of buying an open dog out of laziness. However, it also lifts my heart when my true friends and supporters are excited for my successes.