I managed to make some shaky video of part of my training session with Cass this afternoon. Sensitive readers might want to pop a Dramamine, and everyone would be well served to turn the volume down a bit. Most of my flaws as a handler are on view here — I tend to repeat myself because I didn’t do a good job training Cass to respond to my first command; I tend to raise my voice too often, desensitizing Cass to my instructions, and leaving myself no headroom if I really need to get her attention; poor timing, so that I correct Cass after she’s doing something the right way; and confusing left and right, so that I give Cass contradictory instructions. Denise Leonard, the herding trainer I work with, points all of these things out to me, but there’s nothing like video to induce shame and self-recognition.
Cass and I were working with the group of 20 lambs this afternoon. They are flightly, and Cass is often oblivious about how much pressure she is putting on them, so these sessions can involve a lot of running sheep. My goals lately have been to get Cass to slow down and think about how the sheep are responding to her position and demeanor, so I give her a lot of instructions about where to move and when to stop. I also give her opportunities to work with less input from me, so she can start to feel how she is influencing the sheep and make adjustments on her own. Today’s training was neither brilliant nor disastrous — Cass wasn’t paticularly clued in to how the sheep were reacting to her, but she was paying more attention to what I was asking of her than she sometimes does. I’ve learned that our progress is rarely linear, so tomorrow she might be brilliant, or not.
Here’s a small glossary of herding commands, to help parse the video:
- “Come by” or simply “come” instructs the dog to go around the sheep in a clockwise direction. It’s considerably less effective when the handler cannot consistently remember which way is clockwise.
- “Away” or more formally “away to me” instructs the dog to go around the sheep counterclockwise. Cass is much less comfortable on her “away” side, so she tends to run in a tighter circle than she should, unsettling the sheep.
- “Out” or “get out” instructs the dog to go wider when circling the sheep.
- “Lie down”, depending on the handler’s tone of voice, can mean anything from “get your damn belly on the ground, now!” or “slow down a little bit.” Cass and I have different understandings about how literally she should take this command.
- “Mmm” is my personal command telling Cass to slowly move forward a bit. The customary command is “walk up”, but that was eliciting a dead run from her, so we had to dial it back a bit.