Willie & Trisha Back to Work

Some wonderful things to report today. The first is that I had a restful and relaxing vacation. I saw lots of friends, gardened, cooked and got back to working sheep with Willie (more on that soon). I took an entire three weeks off, which felt terribly indulgent, but also desperately necessary. The last two years have included many wonderful things, but they’ve also included some major challenges, including Jim’s snapped bicep, surgery and recovery, my badly smashed knee, a summer raising a puppy who was (and is) better off another home, the death of Jim’s sister, moving his mother to Madison three weeks later, the out-of-the blue death a month later of Jim’s brother, Willie’s shoulder injury, surgery and year-long recovery, and a raft of my own health problems that I’ve been fighting in 2012. Among some other issues, I’ve been lame with an “about to snap” achilles tendon since January, and have worn the infamous “boot” for far too long. Living in hilly Southwestern Wisconsin in an old farmhouse with steep, narrow stairs is not ideal for healing an achilles tendon, just in case you were wondering. So it was truly glorious to take the time off, focus on my own rehab and be able to start working Willie again. Now I’m back in the office, excited about the new website we’re working on, getting back to writing a memoir and working on a series of fund raiser speeches for shelters this fall.

But enough about me. Willie is the one who deserve the attention here. Last weekend we entered our first sheepdog trial since his injury a year and a half ago, outside of Pigeon Falls, Wisconsin. In a way it was his first trial, since the only other one we went to was a “Fun Trial” in fall of 2010. So it’s our second attempt at working in a competitive environment, although both events were low key and very relaxed (and yeah for that). Willie did very well in the first fun trial, but he lost a tremendous amount of confidence after his injury and long period of restraint. Like many sheepdogs who have big, beautiful outruns and are easy to handle, Willie hates confrontations. His injury and endless period of inactivity just exacerbated it. Even at the fun trial in 2010 he refused to take the flanking whistles I gave him on the fetch, clearly preferring to follow the sheep along and not put himself in a position where the sheep would put a lot of pressure on him. This spring my flock leader, Barbie, chased Willie a good twenty feet when we first started working again. Gradually, over the last 2 months, I’ve been trying to build up his confidence, but even recently there have been times when he wouldn’t “cover” the sheep (meaning he wouldn’t move to where he could stop them from going in one direction or another.) But he loves to work, lives for it really, and I love working with him.  I will never forget Willie’s physical therapist saying to a vet student after his surgery: “We’re working on increasing Willie’s shoulder stability so that maybe someday he can work sheep again.” I blurted out “Oh no. That’s not what we’re working on. Willie WILL work sheep again, it’s just a question of what we have to do to make that happen.”

Life doesn’t always work out that way, but it did this time. He here is, working sheep again. As I’ve said before, I have accepted that he’ll never be truly sound, but I can manage him so that he can work sheep with little or no pain. Yes, our sessions are short, and yes, I wince when he slams to a stop on a downhill, and yes, he’ll need exercises for the rest of his life. But so what? I’m not in such great shape either, so we’re in it together.

Jim video taped Willie’s run, here it is for you to watch. For those of you don’t know sheepdog trials, a ProNovice course is as follows: The sheep are set out and held by a person and dog from about 200 to 600 yards away, depending on the class. (About 250 yards in this case, we ran in what’s called ProNovice.) Once the sheep are settled (as best as possible anyway), you send your dog to the left or right, your choice. Ideally your dog runs in a big, wide semi-circle that keeps him away from the sheep until he gets on the back side. Then he does the “Lift,” which is the point in which the dog makes “contact” (not physical!) with the sheep and takes control over them. Next is the “Fetch,” in which the dog brings the sheep straight to the handler, through 2 gate panels called the Fetch Panels. The sheep are then to be wrapped around the handler as close as possible and then driven away through the first Drive Panels, about 100 yards away. After going through those panels (theoretically anyway), your dog begins the “Cross Drive,” moving across the field to the second set of Drive Panels. You attempt to get the sheep through them, then straight back to you and into a free standing pen. Most trials are won or lost at the lift and fetch: Your dog needs to put just the right amount of pressure on the sheep to take control of them, but not panic them. Lots of trials are lost by dogs who go too fast and create wild, out of control sheep.

Willie couldn’t have done much better at managing some pretty difficult sheep. They tried their hardest to push to the left and get back to the barn, but this time Willie covered them perfectly. You’ll see we were working Suffolks, famous for not flocking and confronting and fighting the dogs, so I was extra happy about his work here. He made one major mistake in the outrun: he stopped about twenty yards out and looked backwards and then at me. I think, just guessing, that he was looking at sheep behind him, asking “Don’t you want me to get those sheep?” He’s a very strong-eyed dog and its hard for him to leave sheep close to him. But that’s just part of trialing and part of being an experienced dog. I said “Come By” again, and off he went. If you’re trial experienced, you’ll see that Willie did a lot right, and made very few mistakes. On the other hand, I can name several mistakes that I made, but I’m not beating myself up about it. It’s only my second attempt too after all. And I learned a lot, had a wonderful time, and left feeling so much love for Willie that it’s practically embarrassing.

It was a small trial, but there were some good competitors, and I’m truly pleased with how we did and what we learned. We even would have gotten first if (ah, those “ifs!”) I’d gotten the pen gate closed one second earlier, or they hadn’t changed the allotted time from 7 to 6 minutes partway through the runs. Being able to say you won is fun, but what mattered far more was me and Willie having a great time. And my good friend Donna and her lovely little dog Shae won the Novice class, so we all drove home happy and glad we had gone.



  1. mungobrick says

    Wow – no wonder you are proud of him. So good to see him back working – and doing so well, too! Great work, both of you!


  2. says

    Go Willy! I’m so very glad that his recovery has come so far (has it really been that long?), and I’m proud of both of you! (which seems like a weird thing for me to say to you)

  3. 001mum says

    This was so exciting to watch and I appreciated your text explainations. To me at all looked good.
    The whistles are a language of their own & for me a mystery.

    I know this is dumb and “sheep-people” will sigh and roll their eyes, but i kept hearing the sheep chattering to Willie. such comments! :) darn my memory of “Babe”………..

    Congratulations on Willie’s recovery.

  4. D says

    Lovely run, Trisha! Congratulations to you and Willie! Willie took his whistles nicely, and didn’t get rattled by that ewe that kept testing him. My trainer once said “Walking sheep are winning sheep,” and you prove that here – they have enough respect for Willie to move off him, but he doesn’t create so much pressure that they panic. Nice job handling.

    That’ll do Willie, that’ll do.

  5. Beth with the Corgis says

    Very nice! I can see why you are proud. I’d never guess he has confidence problems by watching him here.

    I have a sincere question: Every dog training advice I have read generally says to make sure commands are short, one-word utterances. And yet, all the sheep dog commands are short phrases. And I have personally witnessed that my own dogs seem to pick up phrases better than words.

    I was wondering, Trisha, if you might have thoughts on that?

  6. Carolyn says

    Nice job – especially turning the post with all of that pressure off to the left from the exhaust.

  7. Trisha says

    Thanks for the support all. I hope I was clear enough that I made lots of handling errors; as I watch again there are some cringe-worthy moments. And I should be clear that Willie isn’t young, he is just inexperienced. But neither one of us are natural competitors (way too nervous!), and I’m still really happy with how it all went.

    Beth, your question is a good one. You are right that many of the herding commands have several syllables (Walk Up, Come Bye, Go Away or Q’way to Mae, Lie Down… etc.) I did my first research on signals to sheepdogs, and the short single ones are all to stop a dog abrubtly (“Down!” or the dog’s name said loudly.) The dog’s names are often one syllable (Drift, Jed, Jess, Bess, Craig). I think with sheepdogs its more about influencing activity levels… all the multi-word signals are active, the single ones are to slow or stop a dog. I’ve actually always liked “Lie Down” for down for all dogs… using the Lie to get attention, the down (lower) to help the dog down. Thoughts, anyone else?

  8. Alexandra says

    Whistling must make your cheeks ache at the end of a run! Do handlers ever use mechanical whistles to give commands? Or does everyone just use what god gave them?

    Also, do most working sheepdogs respond to multiple “versions” of the same command? IE, a verbal “lie down”, a whistled lie down, and perhaps a physical cue for the same command? I’ve ended up teaching my own pet dog several versions of a number of the most important commands, and it’s to the point that when I’m teaching a new behavior I can often indicate with body language what I want him to do, because he’s so used to watching my body for commands (as well as listening to my voice).

  9. says

    It is so nice to see Willie out working again with you after all you two have been through with his injury – congratulations! I don’t know much of anything about herding, so I appreciated your explanations. Interesting about the sounds – my border collie pup was very interested in all the rapid whistles and came over to investigate even though he’s never been trained on herding or any kind of whistle command.

  10. Kat says

    I love watching dogs work at what they love doing. Thank you for sharing this video of Willie back in action. It was a joy to see.

    The longer commands used in herding question intrigues me a lot. I know in the early stages of training my highly reactive half corgi half GSD bitch I was singing all her cues to the theme music of the old Addams Family TV show and they were all multiple syllable cues beginning with her name “Finna About.” I knew I was singing them because that would make them as consistent as I could get them but I had no idea why they always had to be multiple syllables. Now that we’re 7.5 months into this adventure and I know her a little better I wonder if multiple syllables gave her a little longer to process the cue and the consistent framework gave her an additional reference point that it was a direction to do something. I don’t use the long form, “Finna please sit” for everything anymore unless she’s getting wound up and for some reason in that case I automatically revert. It seems to me that many of the commands used working a dog on sheep have a consistent long short framework so I wonder if that framework helps the dog stay focused and the need to use it in an aroused circumstance is somehow wired into our monkey brains. I’m merely speculating based on my instinctive handling of my own dog but the subject fascinates me.

    Anyway, welcome back to you and Willie both.

  11. says

    Wonderful to see the video! So fun. Thank you for posting it. I’m not sure what the rules are or what Willie was doing but it was great to see your BC at work.

  12. Janice says

    Lovely video and I am so glad that Willie has made such a great recovery. I think that the sheep dog phrases is a fascinating concept–I have one trained sheep dog who was a year old and started in training when I got him and I had no instruction when I started using him and so we both stumbled a lot. It seemed to me, though, as time went on that not only was he following phrases, but he seemed to have picked up a lot of nouns. Of course, I thought I was just deluding myself that he seemed able to distinguish between “llama,” “goose,” “chicken,” “sheep,” “goat,” “water,” and “The Dog.” If I said “water” he would break off what he was doing and go lie in the stream. If I said “llama” he would circle the llama instead of the sheep, with a look of Do I really have to? on his face. Finally the research came out with the two border collies, one on Germany who knew 500 words and the one here in the states who could demonstrate a vocabulary of over 2000 and I was vindicated that maybe it wasn’t my imagination that he actually knew what those nouns meant. But I never did anything to “train” him to those words, they just came up in the conversation, as it were, while we were out working and he learned and added them to his vocabulary. I wonder if there is something in the pattern of our speech that tells the dog “this is a noun and means something tangible and specific”

    The thing that I am the most curious about and wish to learn in greater detail is the whistles. My dog didn’t come whistle trained but I can see that this would be a great advantage at distances. I’ll admit that I am very confused about this. Does every one use the same patterns for the same movements? If you are working two dogs together, do you have a different set of whistles for each dog? How in the world would you then keep them straight? (I still have troubles keeping the commands for circle left or right straight, but I am dyslexic, so maybe this is easier for others). Do you train words first and then whistles? Do you see differences in how the dogs herd when using a whistle versus speech? Does the whistle pattern resemble the rhythm and pitch modulations of the spoken pattern of the sheep dog commands? If you have already been using a variety of whistle patterns to call your dog to come, have you damaged his ability to listen to the different codes in the sheep dog whistles? Do you have to always use the metal whistles or can you do your own whistle sound with pursed lips when training the patterns? Oddly the one thing I don’t need help understanding is how to make the sounds with the whistle–I played recorder and flute in my youth and was able to make sounds on it fairly quickly–but after that I was totally lost. My husband and I are both good musicians, so you would think this would be less bewildering for us. I suspect the dogs can learn these whistles faster than we can. Not that you are ever at a loss for great topics, but would you be willing sometime to discuss sheep dog whistles ..how they are used and trained?

  13. Kathy says

    I absolutely loved watching this video. So impressive! I am thrilled for both of you.

  14. Wendy says

    Must have been some powerfull allergens there, just watching the video gave me wet eyes and sniffles 😉

  15. Beth with the Corgis says

    My own experience is that while dogs do pick up words, they seem to pick them up as part of a phrase better. So if I say “Bed” my dogs will look at me and look a bit stressed. “I think that means something. I think it’s important. But I’m not sure.” If I say “time for bed” they register the entire cadence. But if I say “time for supper” they expect something different. They know the difference between “bed” and “supper” but understand it best as part of the longer phrase. It makes me wonder if “time for” has come to mean “Hey dogs I need your attention for something” in their minds, and the last word at the end is what tells them WHAT is happening. (In case you are wondering, “time for bed” means “go in your crates” and I can say it at any time of day and they will go in. They are not locked in their crates at night, but going into them for a treat is part of the bedtime ritual.”

    I think I mentioned that Jack picked up “excuse me” as meaning “move away from me” without my even realizing I was training him.

    And I believe most people are familiar with the expectant look received from a dog presented with a question and a direct look into his face. Say “Shall we…?” or “Do you want to…?” and the dog instantly looks to be in happy anticipation of something. They may not know what, but they know that the rise at the end of the phrase means something is going to happen, usually something good.

    In agility, I know that we (at least my instructor’s group) frequently insert “go” in front of the name of the obstacle. So it’s “go weaves” or “go frame” or “go tunnel.”

    And Jack knows all his toys by name, but if I just say the toy name he looks at me excitedly and if I say “Where’s (toy name)? Get (toy name).” he will go and look for it.

    On the other hand, halting commands (as Trisha mentioned) are usually sharper and one word. So it’s Wait! or Stay! and not “wait for me.” If you think of our own response to language, we also respond to an imperative “Hey!” or “Stop!” spoken in a crowd by instantly assuming it may mean us, whereas other overheard phrases are ignored unless our name or some other attention-getting precursor is used.

    I think, personally, that the directive to use one-word commands is to keep us silly humans from forgetting to be consistent (because if we used multiple words, we might mistakenly say “lie down” one day and “get down” the next). I think the dogs themselves tend to pick up phrases very well, because the cadence of the phrase would leave a stronger impression than the smaller variations between one word and another.

  16. Jennifer says

    Beautiful!!! He backed that ewe down so nicely. It’s great to see him out working sheep – I confess, I cried a bit. :) I just love dogs at work!

  17. Laura says

    What a great team. Good boy Willy and great job Tricia!
    It’s so interesting how voice is used so similarily in different training and how dogs can tell how confident a person is in how they sound. With our dogs, the command for down is always long and low, “dowwwn.” This is the only command that is voiced this way. Our other commands are authoritative but clipped or short. “Forward, halt, steady, left, right and so-on.” I find the clipped commands abruptly get my dog’s attention but I find myself voicing the command “steady,” in the same, low and slow way I say the down command,. It works, it slows him down. I also find, if people’s commands are spoken too softly or weakily to dogs, they just won’t listen to you. And by that I don’t mean yelling I just mean you can hear the confidents in a person’s voice and so can the dogs.

  18. says

    I really enjoyed watching the video. I think Willie did a wonderful job! I can’t imagine getting my dog to work so far from me! With my Cardigan Corgis, I took a few herding lessons, just enough to earn our AKC Herding Tested title. I thought just that level was pretty hard, so I can’t imagine controlling things in a huge field!

  19. says

    Wow! It is absolutely amazing to see how you and Willie control the sheep from so far away! My only experience with live herding demos is at the Detroit Kennel Club dog show, with BC’s on ducks, inside a conference center. Wonderful, but not like this distance work.

    It’s terrific that you can do this together again.

  20. Cindy says

    My gsd and I competed in our first herding trial this spring and like you, I learned a lot from my mistakes. Willie did a fine job! I also use ‘lie down’ rather than ‘down’ so it gives him a chance to stop rather than expecting him to drop on the spot. The discussion about commands is interesting, especially since I had a chance to spend 2 hours talking to a world class herding trainer/competitor. She suggested I try herding without giving any commands, just using my body movements and signals without saying a word. It was incredibly successful! We worked at one end of the arena with my back to the fence in front of the sheep and had my dog move them direction then another just by directing him with my arm and giving him the sheep by moving the other way. He thought it was fun at first then stopped and looked at me like “What game is this?” and then I gave him a simple ‘sit’ and ‘good boy’. The trainer explained that this would have him expect and wait for a command instead of working on his own, which he tended to do. After a few direction changes I moved off the fence. let him pick up the sheep and move them in a circle a few times, then repeated the process. It was an eye-opening exercise and one that improved our communication tremendously, ironically.

  21. Mary says

    Great run! Lots of patience at the Pen. I entered some AKC herding trials (smaller courses) last fall and this Spring, and then my first BC trial (Novice) at the Bluegrass trial in May – what a thrill, and am eager and scared to go on to ProNovice. I’ve done agility trials for several years, but herding trials are a whole different ball game. The outruns in the Open class just take my breath away, and I could watch them for hours. So happy for you and Willie!

  22. Trisha says

    Yeah for you Mary for competing in the Bluegrass! I saw it a million years ago (25?) and it was awesome even then. Maybe you’ll be ready to come up to ProNovice in Wisconsin for our Labor Day Trial, hey?

  23. Shady says

    Hi! This is my first comment here, I’m actually working my way through all of your blogs from about 2010 on and was excited for a chance to see Willy work the sheep but I see that somehow that video got lost from this post. Would it be possible for that video to get reposted? I’m not even sure if you’ll see this request, but I thought I’d try. Of course this was three years ago, now, but for me Willie has only just gotten back to working sheep!

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