Wednesday, September 14, 2011

My GSDs and Sheep...

Back in 1995,  I shared a house near Yorktown, VA, with a friend who wanted to learn about herding with her Border collies. I had recently moved back to Virginia from grad school in Oregon and I was job hunting. I had two dogs--Thorn, my American-line GSD (born in 1992) and Frost, an import-bred German working-line girl (born in 1994). My friend loved Border Collies and wanted to trial at the highest levels and she was buying a small farm and a few sheep and she needed a housemate.

In Oregon, I had trained Thorn in tracking, agility, and AKC obedience--he had gotten his CDX before he was 2 years old. And then I fell in love with doing bitework and started learning about the three-part sport of schutzhund. I started out first with a group doing personal protection training, then just worked him with a friend of mine who was learning to do decoy work. We learned from talking and from books and videos and visiting a couple of clubs--we figured it out as we went along.

I trialled for Thorn's BH at a DVG club in Corvallis. So, back in Virginia, I was looking for a club to continue learning about schutzhund and starting driving up to Alexandria--two hours up on early Saturday mornings, and four long hours home through DC-metro traffic.

As much as my friend loved Border Collies and herding, I loved GSDs and schutzhund. I wanted to learn everything about GSDs--breed surveys and conformation shows and biking for the AD and pedigrees and hip xrays, bitework, tracking, obedience, working in drive, understanding the interplay of courage and drive and biddability, control versus instinct, conflict versus teamwork, and environmental pressure and handler pressure and the pressure coming back at the dog from his engagement with the helper... or the sheep.
Frostbite v Pantara, KK2, Sch1, CD

You see, I was also having the time of my life learning about herding. I watched Border Collie training and trials. I learned how to care for sheep, how to trim hoofs and clean lanolin glands. I helped rehabilitate a few BC rescues that came through our hands and started a few young dogs on sheep. And I tried to herd with my GSDs.

Frost was dripping with drive. She would do anything for food and anything for a toy. And she liked the sheep. But her drive was greater than her capacity to be guided by either her instincts or by me. She would gather and down--but she would scream the entire time she worked. And the sheep would move faster and she'd run harder and she'd whine and whistle and scream. And finally, after a whole lot of getting nowhere very fast, I had to stop with her.

Thorn had drive and hardness, but his instincts didn't seem to tell him what to do past "gather the sheep together." I couldn't move him out, couldn't slow him down. A bag or bottle or a waved hand to push him out and off the sheep didn't faze him--did not affect him in the least. Something that would send a BC swooping 30 feet wide wouldn't even get an ear flick from Thorn. He was more than bombproof--he was undeterrable. Like herding sheep with a juggernaut. A pvc pipe poked against his shoulder and he'd turn and start barking at me. If it was someone other than me in the ring with him, at the first wave of stick or pvc or buggy whip to push him off and back--trying to gain some room for the sheep--he'd turn grab the stick and bite down, cracking it along its length, then he'd toss his head and jerk the stick out of the trainer's hand, throw it to the ground, bark again, looking straight into the handler's eye, just to makes sure his point had been made, and go back to his sheep.

So, no matter that Thorn was the most willing and eager and biddable of dogs when it came to obedience training or tracking or protection training--in herding, it all jumbled up.He wasn't hunting the sheep--he wasn't looking to hurt them. His instincts told him to do something, I told him to do something else... and it never came clear, we never moved past that beginner stage--him pushing too hard, me never able to back him off, slow him down, calm him down, control him, work  him, herd the sheep.
Blackthorn's Ashen, KK2, SCH3, IPO3

And after a year of trying, I had to move on. I had to move out of eastern Virginia to find a job. I had to give up on herding with Thorn and with Frost. And I had to decide--would I get a Border Collie and pursue herding? Or did I want to stick with GSDs and walk the walk in schutzhund?

So I moved to Charlottesville and began driving two and three times a week to schutzhund training. First to Alexandria,  Lynchburg, then to Leesburg, later to Berryville or Manassas or Fort Valley. I trialled in Maine and Texas, Alabama and Tennessee and Boston. I went to shows and trials and training and seminars. And I left herding behind for nearly 14 years.

And then, somehow, in the summer of 2008, I showed up at for a visit with Terri with a bicolor puppy named Jedi, a son of my Ashen and Nike, a grandson of Frost. I asked her if I could hire her to socialize him a bit, and left him there--just for a month! But he never came back home to me. Not even a year later, I got a phone call from Terri, "My German Shepherd herds sheep!" Jedi had gone to an AHBA trial and gotten his Junior Herding Dog title at barely a year old.

A few months after that, I went for a visit and discovered herding. Hunter, starting at age 3, showed a natural gentleness, great self control and biddability, and natural instinct. She'd bump the sheep with the side of her open jaw instead of biting. She wanted to listen to me and she wanted to work sheep. And Jedi's litter sister Jubilee showed great promise--natural balance, intense drive, and talent.

Hunter, with her maturity and her desire to please--her biddability--as well as her somewhat softer attitude toward the sheep, was easy to take to an AHBA trial and get that JHD in two legs, two tests. Not so much Jubilee. On Day 1 of the AHBA trial, going for her first JHD leg, she got dismissed for biting a sheep--and hanging on. Day 2 our routine was a bit insane--and very, very fast (I did the course at a jog!)--but there was no blood, and we kept it mostly together, and Jubilee got her first JHD leg.

Since I first went down to try again at this madness called herding, I have tested Kva and Kari and Xita and Macha on sheep. Kiva had instinct but not the bond with me--and she had a taste for biting sheep. Kari had instinct and desire and a gentle, gentle approach--she would take a feather-light hand.

Xita has had only 6 lessons,  3 of them this past weekend. And she is showing interest and instinct and biddability--starting a mature dog makes it too easy to overrule their latent instincts, so it can be all easy to teach them not to herd when you ask them to slow down, stop a second, change direction, move more slowly. It takes a delicate balance of enthusiasm and control, instinct and teamwork. But Xita is going to do well, I think. When we walk out of the round pen, she throws her chest against my side and grins at me, as if to say, "Thank you! That was FUN!" And that grin, and the one I return to her, is worth it.

But Jubilee, for the last two years, in our intermittent adventures in herding, has been a challenge. Like doing calligraphy with a jet rocket, to draw the picture for you. Jubilee has treated me in the herding realm with both disdain and disregard. I was, patently, wrong in my requests of her, to stop or slow down or change direction. What's more, I was no fun.

But somewhere in there, I started working Jubilee more and more in obedience, getting her ready for some rally trials. And I learned that I had to insist not only on respect, but on consistent respect. I could not give an inch of leeway when it came to control around the sheep. This is not about controlling the dog by force, but about insisting and demonstrating that my way was the only way to be around sheep, that going behind my back at an accelerating zoom was not going to be an option.

And piece by piece, step by step, something amazing has happened. Jubilee has granted me her respect not only in the trial ring but off the training field and in the round pen. And this hard won regard is, I think, one of my greatest training accomplishments. I had to learn, and Jubilee taught me.

This past weekend, herding with Xita and Macha and Jubilee was a layering of learning, an application of theory, showing the dogs how they could do what their instincts wanted them to do, what I wanted them to do. And that listening to me while hearing their instincts, they could have fun, could play with sheep. And on Monday, I drove the 180 miles home saying to myself, "My German Shepherds herd sheep!"

1 comment:

Country Girl said...

Isn't it the neatest thing??

Those tough dogs sure teach us lots!