27 November, 2010

A Dog Without Faults...

All photos in this post by T. Graham, edited by D. Pagel

Faults are in the eye of the beholder, it seems to me. If your dog (or bitch) has no faults, I feel confident he or she is the first of a kind! I'd like to talk a little bit about how people describe stockdogs, what it could mean and what I think is sometimes between the lines. The content of this post is not meant to reflect any particular person or dog except me :)

Everyone prefers different strengths in a dog. Some like a dog with a "lot of forward" or "plenty of power."

Lucy lifting at Island Crossing

So what does that mean? Does it mean the dog can effortlessly move any kind of sheep, regardless of how tough those sheep are? Well what about wild Barbs or Katahdins? Will the dog who excels on Meeker range sheep be the same dog who does terrific on East coast Cheviots, West coast fine wool range lambs and dog-broke farm flock hair sheep? Is there such a thing as "too much" forward?

Well, I am a sheepdogging novice and in my eyes there is such a thing as too much forward - a dog who runs through the bit. Also too much forward for me is a dog who terrifies sheep and the sheep can not settle. I always wonder when people say they have a dog with "plenty of forward" does it mean the dog is quietly confident, or does it mean the dog moves sheep at MACH2 through the course without regard for the handler? When the dog is so intent on moving sheep that he or she can not work with the handler unless the handler is a singularly top hand, is that the right dog for most people?

Lucy on the fetch at Island Crossing

Some people like a dog who is fearless. Does fearless mean the same thing as "grippy"? Well, it can - depending on the dog and the hand. Again, fearless can mean quietly powerful and unafraid to walk into anything. Or it can mean tense, fast and will always move the sheep, but does the dog have to grip to do so? I wonder how fearless a grippy dog is. So many dogs grip out of uncertainty, lack of confidence, frustration, tension. How do we tell the difference? Experience and honesty.

One thing I really like in a dog is biddability and good listening. This should surprise no one who knows how much I love Lucy. However, I often hear biddable used to describe dogs who are, in fact, weak or frightened of sheep. If the dog listens too well because he is afraid to get into trouble, or worse, afraid to be on contact with sheep and so the handler need not compete with instinct, that can be a fault. Is my dog weak? She can be. However, 95 times or more out of 100 we will get the job done. Will she find the odd sheep she struggles to move at trial? Yes. Have I ever seen her fail to move something as a farm dog doing chores? Absolutely not.

So what about a dog who has a "lot" of eye? This could mean a dog who is straight as an arrow when it comes to lines and uses a method with a lot of eye. Or it can mean a dog who is sticky, clappy, falls into flanks or can't move freely behind its sheep. Then there is the "loose eyed" dog. Does a dog have to have a great deal of eye to get the job done? No. Is moderate eye helpful? Yep.

Lucy crossdriving at Island Crossing

Then there is the "natural outrunner." This is a thing of beauty to witness when it is accurate. Nothing nicer than seeing a naturally good outrunner grow into maturity. But is this a young dog who is actually too wide and will run fences by 3 years old? It could be either, or both.

The natural outrunner is often also described as having naturally square flanks. Is this a dog who stays off contact and just gets wider and wider if the sheep lean on them a little, or if the dog doesn't understand what the handler wants? Does the dog flank square in neutral positions, but naturally negative flank when pressure is increased slightly? These are important questions.

Then there is the dog with "plenty of feel." A dog with natural feel who can rate a variety of different stocks well and a dog who is liked by a wide variety of stock is a great thing. I love seeing a dog who can treat a wide variety of sheep with keenness and sensitivity in equal balance to produce a good working relationship with stock. But can "plenty of feel" sometimes mean a dog who is weak? Yes. If a dog has too much feel certainly that dog can end up being weak, concerned about pushing too hard on sheep, and certainly can be a dog the sheep stop easily.

Setting up to shed at Island Crossing

So what is my perfect dog? My perfect dog would have quiet power on a variety of stock without being frantic or difficult to control. The dog should be willing and happy to listen, but able to (and ALLOWED to... separate soapbox) make decisions on his or her own. Moderate eye, enough feel to be sensible without being weak. Stamina is also incredibly important - both physical and mental stamina to the task and unlimited willingness to try a task even when it is frustrating. The dog should be compact and athletic. I'd like a dog who can work all day, but be just as happy to relax in the house as needed. It is worthwhile to note I mention very little about conformation: that is because I do believe in form following function. If the dog can do everything I've mentioned here, it will be sound of body and mind.

So how do I get such a dog? First, choosing carefully. Second, taking the time to develop a meaningful relationship with the dog. I really do think this matters, and I know some will argue me about it. I'm not interested in arguing, but I am entitled to my opinion.

How is such a dog made? Well breeding is a big part of it, or so it seems. A trend I see in breeding is people breeding to a dog with "opposite faults." This means breed a weak dog to a very strong dog, or a loose-eyed dog to a dog with a lot of eye, a dog who, a dog who is a little too good to a dog who is a little too bad. I sometimes wonder at the wisdom here. It seems to me genetics is a lot more like painting stripes than mixing paint. I feel like I see individual traits of each parent come out in pups, rather than muted/combined versions of these traits that are new and unique to the pup. If we have a can of red paint and a can of white paint, we could paint red and white stripes along the walls, or we can mix the cans together and paint everything swirls of pink. It seems to me a I see a whole lot more striped dogs than pink dogs ;) While that can, and does, happen, it just seems more common that a pup will express a unique combination of traits similar to each parent. Again, my experience here is limited, but I have been paying close attention and trying hard to learn. This is where I am today. I wonder if it makes sense to double up on strengths in more moderate dogs? I don't know the right answer.

So why am I concerned? Well, with Lucy's puppies on the way, all of these things are worrisome to me. Ultimately, I hope to produce some quality sheepdogs but also dogs with a generally excellent temperament who are healthy, sound, well-built and good family pets. It will be interesting to see how they turn out - perhaps they will prove me wrong! Luckily it will take a few years to know, and by then this post will be ancient history.

I would be interested in your comments and feedback about how people describe dogs, or a description of your perfect dog.

23 November, 2010

14 November, 2010

Canadian Journey

In the middle of October I ventured north to Canada, making an epic drive to Alberta and back with dogs as my copilots. It was a relaxing and fun trip, and I did stop and take a few pictures along the way.

By the time we got home, we had logged over 1600 miles, and crossed the Rockies 4 times in 1 month!

We drove through FLAT Eastern Washington...

We crossed the border at Eastbrook. This is the scenic loop lookout on the US side of the border crossing. The border guards were confused by my license plate, and gave me trouble heading both directions over it.

With Sandpoint and Eastbrook behind me, and Moyie, Fernie and Cranbrook ahead, I set my eyes on the km/hr gauge and drove on.

We started climbing into the mountains...

And we passed through numerous small and not-so-small towns along the way.

And crossed the Rocky Mountain summit at Crowsnest Pass. Crowsnest lake is very beautiful and we stopped to go for a walk at the rest area each direction.

We began dropping down into Alberta, and were rewarded with views behind us of Crowsnest Peak.

Soon we passed a MASSIVE rock slide called the Frank Slide. The Frank Slide occurred in 1903 and dammed the Crowsnest River, as well as destroying a mine, most of the mining town and taking a number of lives. The slide is really stunning in its magnitude. You can learn more about the Frank Slide including seeing some amazing panoramic photos here.

Once in Alberta, we discovered that just like the US East of the Rockies, it is FLAT. This is the view of the Rockies from the Alberta side.

I consulted the directions in my pocket and finally turned off the highway 13 hours later onto a winding, gravel road...

And arrived at my destination... the intersection of several gravel roads in the middle of the flatness. The stars were amazing here...

And we saw the friend we had come to visit:

Photo by Jenny Glen

We hoped to return with some precious cargo, and indeed a different kind of photo was taken 2 days ago to find out if we had.

I am pleased to report we are expecting a litter out of Lucy, by Scott Glen's outstanding male Don. Her ultrasound confirmed her pregnancy is progressing normally so far. The puppies are due 12.14.2010. Keep paws and fingers crossed for a healthy pregnancy for Lucy and the safe arrival of beautiful babies before Christmas!

12 November, 2010

Conforming.... to WHAT?

Normally I blog about my own dogs, trialing, training and school. This post may seem a little out of character, but I was so troubled by this video I could not help myself.

I am a fancier of purebred dogs. I own 3 of them, as well as a mixed breed dog. My double digit dogs are largely sound with the occasional stiffness. My almost 14-year-old mixed breed is definitely in her golden years, even having had an OCD lesion in the hock as a pup.

Videos like this make me so very sad. Yes, "slo-mo" might change the way things look. Yes, restrained forehand movement due to the leashwork could change the way things look. But nothing... nothing... can make the dog at 2:53 look like he will be sound for a long day's work... or even alive as a 12-year-old.

Conformation standards have a place. My purebred dogs have been selected for temperament, soundness and health. I looked at many, many dogs before buying my dogs. Perhaps I've just been lucky. But if this is what happens to a breed when a written conformation standard guides breeders to select for THIS... and judges to put it up... I'm speechless. I'm sad. And I now better understand why some people are ready to attack me when they realize I have purebred dogs I paid for, while other dogs died in shelters.

07 November, 2010

Vashon and Island Crossing

Well Lucy and I have been to 2 trials since I last posted. The Vashon Island Sheepdog Classic is a great trial and I would highly recommend it. Very well organized, tough field and beautiful location. We were running on Eric Harlow's fine wool range sheep and they can read a dog like a book.

When I first got Lucy, she would often unwind off the pressure and struggled to walk into the heads of the sheep consistently. Well, we have come a long way since then.

Lucy is not the strongest dog in the world, but she is strong enough to get most anything done, and has enough finesse to move even the touchiest hair sheep calmly. On Saturday, we had a tough go of it. I was quite worried about the outrun as it is over and around a variety of hills and blind at a number of points along the way. I think I counted 5 spots where the dogs were blind, and 4 where they could actually check and see where the sheep were.

Lucy and I were running 7th. I took her up to the blind to spot nice and early for one run, I think it was the 2nd run of the day? I am very glad I did. I got her out 2 dogs ahead of my run and took her to spot. Neither dog found its sheep. Now my nerves were strung tight. I feared a re-run of Lacamas where she got lost on the outrun. I need not have worried.

Photo by D. Pagel

I thought she got a good look at the sheep from the post. I sent right and she ran a little narrow until the first hill, which she automatically ran out and around. I think I held my breath until she finally got about 80% of the way up the field and got a good look at the sheep. She kicked herself out wide and picked them up. She was not as deep as she could have been on top, but I left her go since she is usually quite responsible at the lift. Our fetch was acceptable but a little wavy as the sheep had Lucy's number. She was a bit too polite to them on the lift and they were leaning hard to get back to the set-out. They had been standing to graze through 2 dogs trying to find them and had no interest in running for this dog who did. That being said, everything went fine for the rest of the fetch. We split them through the panel and turned the post well. The first leg of the drive was straight and I was very pleased with how she walked into her sheep.

Photo by D. Pagel

There had been one particularly high-headed fast running ewe since the lift. She decided this was her big chance. The drive-away panel was perched on the side of a steep knoll. The runner got out ahead and Lucy was behind the group of 3. I was completely at a loss as far as the right way to handle so I kept Lucy on the 3 and pushed them through the panel. By this time my single runner had crested the top of the knoll and realized she had the highest ground. Note to self: Range sheep who live in very flat areas are shocked and amazed by the power of having the high ground. The 3 joined the one and I flanked Lucy around to start the cross drive. The lead ewe had no intention of giving up the hill.

Can you pick out the "troublemaker" ?
Photo by D. Pagel

She stomped at Lucy and lowered her head, charging a couple of times. Lucy did not give up any ground, but neither did she move the sheep off the hill. Finally I asked her for a grip so she ran at the sheep with great intent. I gave a hard down to prevent an actual bite, but now the sheep were moving! She completed the cross drive and we timed out on the 3rd leg.

This was an example to me of how improved Lucy's confidence is. A year ago I'm fairly certain that ewe could have run Lucy off, or at least gained a yard of ground. I was quite pleased that Lucy held her ground.

Photo by D. Pagel

Sunday was much better. Lucy ran out knowing that her lift would need to be harder, and so it was. The fetch was pretty straight, made the panels. Turned the post and the draw to the exhaust (behind the handler and off to the left, with a left hand drive) was very strong. She got them past the exhaust but the high-ground game started again around the drive-away panel. This time Lucy was wise to them and maneuvered the sheep smartly through the panel. A wide turn and then the cross drive started well. Part of the cross drive (like over 1/3 of it) was blind. I sent her into the blind and she did not come out as quickly as I might have hoped. When I could finally see the sheeps' ears they were facing in 2 different directions. I flanked the direction I thought would help but apparently I picked the ears of the sheep that had been facing her instead of moving off her so they turned back. I retired and walked down to the blind to help Lucy understand what I wanted. I was very happy with this run. Lucy demonstrated a much better understanding of her sheep and I wanted to retire before using up my dog completely on a run that would not win.

After those runs, I was glad to have my lesson last week with Scott Glen. He gave me some good pointers for teaching a bold approach when whistled to do so, and how to change Lucy's intent when needed so it is perfectly clear to the sheep without an actual grip.

Yesterday we ran at Island Crossing. Joe and Heather Haynes are so nice and they always put on good trials. I missed the last one so I was glad to make it to this one. Lucy and I were 20th to the post. Many dogs were having trouble keeping a good lift and early fetch as the draw to the setout was intense. I sent Lucy left, between the set out and the sheep. She got to about 11 o'clock and slowed way down, lifting from the side. I gave her a pretty stiff walk-up whistle and she lifted them expertly. I was very pleased with this. The fetch was good. For 10-15 seconds in the middle, the fetch on this field is blind. They went into the blind on-line but came out just a touch off-line as Lucy had moved to cover the draw side just a little too much. (Read: Lucy chose to stay on the pressure - GOOD GIRL) but the second half of the fetch was offline to my right. There were no fetch panels, and it was my first time to run without fetch panels. I looked over the sheep's backs about 3/4 of the way through the fetch and realized they were off-line but it was too late to do much about it. Bad handling!!

A nice tight turn at the post and first leg of the drive was uneventful. Many dogs were losing their sheep/creating runners through the drive panel back to the set-out pens. I was very pleased with Lucy as we had geared down the sheep a fair bit to keep them from running. The draw is tricky as there is a strong draw to the right (exhaust) and ahead (set-out). It took several flanks to get Lucy to let go of the exhaust pressure and flank around to begin the first half of the cross drive. The turn was a little wide, but the first half of the cross drive was just peachy. I had an elaborate strategy that is not worth sharing here. Suffice it to say it worked, and I was pleased to see it work! The draws switch about 6 different times during a run on this field.

At the cross drive panels, I knew the sheep were a little high but Lucy did not want to take the necessary come-bye flank to let them go through the panel because it opened up the escape route to the exhaust. Probably half of the dogs lost their sheep onto the exhaust, with a number of them bouncing sheep off the fences at the exhaust. While we skimmed the cross drive panels high, we got a beautiful turn and the sheep never even believed they could get to the exhaust. I was very pleased, though it probably cost me 10 points between missing the panels and being high on the second half of the cross drive. Lucy is choosing to stay in the pressure consistently. This is a thing of beauty. She also maintained control of her sheep through the run and never lost them to the set-out or exhaust. GO RED DOG!

The third leg was a Herculean effort on my part to salvage points. We walked into the shedding ring and magic happened! Grouped the sheep, I pushed them onto Lucy a few steps, I looked at her between 2 sheep and she made the gap. I called her in and the sheep split around me, as one might predict for a farm flock. But all our practice has been paying off -- she stayed in the gap and held the shed. We regathered them in the ring before they could think about the exhaust.

Last was the pen and it was a surprise to me. I think this was only our 2nd time to make it to the pen and not complete it (first time was at Wessels). I had one very quick Cheviot(?) cross who wanted nothing to do with the pen, one very slow agreeable Clun and 2 middle of the road Cluns. The draw to the exhaust was heavy and Lucy was a bit tight and slicing her flanks at the pen because she could feel the draw. I allowed it thinking it would help convince the sheep that the draw was not an option. After a bit of mussing around, I nearly retired. Instead I decided to train a bit and cleaned up her flanks. We had 2 sheep into the pen and 2 nearly. I had just started moving the gate when time was called. It likely did not affect our score very much because I had wasted most of my pen points anyway with mussing around.

All in all, I was very pleased with this run. Lucy kept control of her sheep through the entire course (even too much control in 2 places!) Her sheep were happy and calm everywhere but at the pen where the Cheviot cross was a little rattled. At the end of the day, this sport, for me, is supposed to represent what a real shepherd and his dog are capable of. I like to see sheep looking as calm as they can and still moving efficiently, because to me, that translates into big, healthy tasty lambs and hardy, excellent mothers.

What do you like to see on the trial field?