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Allowing our dogs to win

Updated: Jul 10, 2019

I like cool ribbons. I do. I like earning them and keeping them flat so they don't wrinkle, and looking for a place to hang them where they're seen, but, not seen - not bragging, just you know, 'Oops, how did that get taped to the bathroom door? Since you ask, let me tell you all about my dog's last trial!"

But, I also know that ribbons only tell a part of the story. If my dogs have a mediocre day, but everyone has a crap day, I get some bling, sure, that's cool. If my dog has a stellar day, but other dogs' stellar days are way better, no bling, but wow! What a great day!

So, having said all that, this past weekend Cody, Dice, and I went to our first AKC Herding Trial.

I trial to test my dogs against other dogs; test myself against other handlers; work in strange places with new sheep; and show me the holes in my training and handling. The last two are the most valuable.

Cody ran first on Saturday, and man! are AKC courses small! I felt like we never developed any sort of flow. Cody has been doing this weird thing on her outruns (the first part where the dog whizzes up the field to get the sheep) where she hesitates uncertainly right before she gets them. I don't know what started this behavior.

Anyway, right away we're sending to the side she doesn't like, so she tries to go the direction she does like, and I have to stop her immediately and send her again ( a huge knock to her confidence!). Halfway to the sheep she looks at me, and actually starts to come in to me. I remind her to get her sheep. She carries on, but slowly. She picks up the sheep great, and we head to the handler's post really well. This is the best part of her entire run.

From here her lack of reliable 'down' and my questionable handling make for a wreck. We get the sheep through the course, but it feels rushed, and ugly. Cody is a flowy dog who does well with movement, and in the tight AKC course her weaknesses are glaring.

We pen the sheep and finish the course. I am happy with her. I am disappointed in the run, and disappointed in some of her non-existent 'downs', but I am happy nevertheless, because she always tries, and she's such a wonderful dog!

Dice, on the other hand has a ripcord stop! He skids to a stop! Dust flies when he stops! His entire run was smooth and pretty lovely. We finish and I am thrilled! He's happy that I'm happy, he bounces to the in-gate ahead of me and doesn't even mark the spot that every other dog has marked.

Dice qualified and got first. Cody qualified and got second.

I immediately chose where I'll focus my efforts for the following day. The only issue Dice had was holding the sheep off me for the re-pen. The judge wanted them held exactly where the sheep did not want to be held, and we, like nearly (or every) other team, failed to hold them. So, that's what I was going to change in Dice's run on Sunday.

Cody, on the other hand had felt like a car wreck. The video shows that it was not quite so bad, but there was certainly a burnt rubber aspect to it, even if there wasn't crumpled steel.

Fixing her down wasn't going to happen over night. So, I decided that I was going to fix the outrun. I was going to take her out a few runs early and get her excited and put her on the sheep in a state of enthusiasm that would hopefully bypass her hesitancy.

If getting a good outrun meant the rest of the run became a bit of a wreck, so be it.

So, Sunday morning dawns cool with low clouds and a threat of drizzle. Perfect herding weather. I watched the Advanced dogs run, and got a wonderful handling tip from skilled handler and trainer, Cathy Sumeracki of SummerNy Ranch north of Phoenix. (Everyone I've met in the herding community has been incredibly welcoming and generous with advice!)

Cody runs first in her class, so she sits outside watching the last three advanced dogs run. I use her cue to go in and get crazy right before I down her and ask for the stock to be released. I stand further away from the stock in the hope that she'll feel less pressure from me.

Cody's outrun is spectacular! She goes fast, she goes wide, and she goes with confidence! Yay! She stampedes the sheep past me because she won't take my 'down' command, and the rest of her run is not pretty. We had several 'time-outs' where I simply demanded a down and tried to give her a moment to find her brain. I don't know where it was, but it wasn't in the arena!

We finish after several sheep escapes followed by enthusiastic returns, but... her outrun was great!

Dice came into the ring in the same mental state as Cody. Everything he did so well the day before he couldn't do on Sunday. He ran the sheep up the wrong side of the panels, after crossing from one side to the other on his out run (a big no-no, and (fun) a totally new behavior from him), his downs were sluggish and I could almost see the blue fizzy lightning that his brain had become zapping between his ear tips.

But. At the end, after having finally wrestled the sheep through a mish-mashed reimagining of the course, I thought, let's park the damn sheep where the judge wants them. It took a bit of maneuvering (and Dice was more than thrilled to prolong the exercise as long as it took!) but we got about 90% of the way there, and ended our run on the lipstick portion of the pig.

Dice got a close second to another dog for his efforts, and Cody was third, but with a score that showed some improvement.

I was thrilled! My dogs try. My dogs work for me to the best of their understanding. They love to work, and want to please me, and it's on me to clear up the communication and fix my handling to better assist them.

This is the second trial in a row where my scores took a precipitous decline on the second day. In thinking about why this is and how to solve it, I think that the 3-4 minutes that it takes to complete the course leaves the dogs frustrated and wanting more, and since I'm not hauling my sheep everywhere we go, I'll have to find a way to better help them alleviate some of that frustration so that I can count on them to show up with their minds intact on day two of a trial.

When we train our dogs, we are always reminded to try to help them find wins. And just like the trial arena, your dog's wins have nothing to do with anyone else. They're yours and yours alone. On a bar graph, my dogs' day-on-day performance declined from Saturday to Sunday (and, yes, we need to find out why and fix it!) but the little spikes of improvement are what matter. The little wins in a sea of fugly. That's the story of training. That's the story of how we become better dog trainers, and our dogs become better at their jobs.

When you train your dog today, look for the wins.

*** A special shout-out to Geri Abrams of Free to Be Ranch and the New Mexico Herding Dog Association for putting on a great trial! Everyone I have met at these trials has been incredibly supportive, friendly, and free with gems of useful advice. Trialing can be scary, but I have felt nothing but welcome by these folks. If you're looking for a small trial with a family atmosphere, you can't beat the trials put on by Geri at Free to Be! ***

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