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December 14, 2013: Going to the Dogs -- Herding Class #5

Hard to believe we’re five classes into it, but this is where we are at. A snowstorm was predicted. We got to Suzanne’s ahead of it. The snow started falling as we tumbled out of the car. Heather and Carly followed us into the parking lot. Heather showed me her new vehicle, one that is well suited to carrying her dogs around. (She trains dogs). Yep, we are going to the dogs. Heather and her Border Collie Jill went first. We worked in the larger enclosure, the one with the two side-by-side gates. Twenty or so sheep waited patiently for us rubes to do what we do so well. Jill who was full of energy did some nice outruns. She was obviously very happy to be working sheep.

Ryder and Pete went next. I must say, Ryder is finally getting the hang of sheep herding. For instance, one of the sheep ran away from the herd. Ryder saw it, and took off, sending it back into the central flock. Suzanne, who was standing next to me, said that her sheep are heavy sheep, this as opposed to light sheep. Heavy sheep tend to huddle together and move in a slower and more deliberate fashion. Conversely, light sheep are skittish, and tend to be all over the place. From what I can tell, its best to have inexperienced dogs work heavy sheep. I can see where a dog like Ryder would go into a frenzy if she (right now) found herself amongst a group of light sheep. It would be like putting a cat in a tankful of guppies.

I try and ask Suzanne as many questions as I can because she knows the ins and outs of herding. Plus, she knows all of her students’ dogs, and she also loves her sheep. I asked, and was told, that if a student’s dog injures a sheep, that the student must purchase the sheep. The cost is $130.00 a head. I was at first fearful that Ryder might be too aggressive with them, but she has been just fine. But if she did injure a sheep, I would put it in the back of our truck, bring it home, and nurse it back to health.

I’ve begun to shadow Suzanne, the way I shadowed Robyn Hood who owns the Icelandic Horse Farm, and Claudia Sihler, who owns Better Pet Companion. These three women amaze me—their insights are such that I want to just keep following them around, and just keep listening to what they have to say. There have been others whose ideas I have dismissed because their ideas don’t at all jive philosophically with mine. What these woman share in common, besides a love of animals, is a belief that animals that are doing good should be praised, immediately.

Other students took their turns. In the meantime my friend Victoria came to see what was going on, and just in time to watch Ryder and me flash the light fantastic. Victoria’s being there made me a bit nervous – I badly wanted to do well because she was there.

Ryder did not disappoint. This time we connected for a longer period of time than we did last week. Ryder kept the sheep bunched together as I walked ahead of her. Having the bonker stick (a pole with an attached blue milk bottle) made me feel as though I was the leader of a marching band – I had to suppress the impulse to march. Ryder kept the sheep bunched together as we went out in the field and did figure eights between the two parallel gates. This was also the first time in which I was able to get the sheep to follow me and get the dog to follow the sheep. I at one point recalled what I learned last time, which was to stay connected to Ryder, using both my eyes and my voice.

I did notice that she was moving in close to the sheep, and nipping at their heels. I later mentioned this to Suzanne, who said to push her back. This way, she will learn that her presence will move the sheep. I guess that first it has to make sense to me. Then it will make sense to the dog. I got it.

Towards the end of the session, Ryder ran off when someone fired a gun. She headed back to the gate, where Pete was. By then I was surrounded by sheep. Suzanne told Pete to grab the leash and bring the dog back to me. I decided to try using the “Ryder, come” command. And so right before Pete could grab her, she came hurtling in my direction. This was huge – I have learned that Ryder won’t come if she has doubts about her being praised for it.

After our go-round, Suzanne explained to me that Ryder isn’t a trial dog, but rather a ranch dog. This is good, for it complements the farm owner’s training methods, which are for those wanting to do ranch work. Ranch dogs herd goats, sheep, chickens, cattle, ducks, etc. Well, we have goats. This was why I asked Suzanne if it was okay to continue to work with Ryder on goat herding. Her response, which was an enthusiastic “yes!” made me feel good – I was wondering if her working goats would make Ryder more aggressive. As I then told Suzanne, I have been thinking that Ryder sees our short goat herding sessions as her “real” job. She puts her paws on the kitchen addition window, and watches when I let them out of the pen. Then, when I let her out, she puts her tail down, goes into the crouch, eyeballs the goats, and moves them back in the pen.

So tonight, when we got home, I had her put Ranger and Rover back in their quarters. When done, the tail went back up, and she followed me back into the house. This time, I didn’t even have to say “that’ll do.”

Next: 264: 12/15/13: K-9 Search and Rescue, Session #2