We finally had a few days of sun last week. (The round, bright yellow thing in the sky that hurts your eyes if you look at it, just in case you forgot). But of course, it rained again, and since the ground never dried out we seem to be living in a second “mud season”. Typically, “mud season” was in spring, but given all the rain this summer and fall, we’ve had it seems that we’ll be living in the equivalent of chocolate icing until it freezes up. (Never has frost looked so good!)
Needless to say, that means lots of muddy paws around here, which reminded me how much I love the cue “Ready”. I’ve written about it before, but bring it back every five years or so because it is one of my favorite cues. It’d be great if it was part of every family dog training curriculum, hey?
Here’s what I’ve written in the past (which includes a lovely reminder of our Willie boy, who we still ache for):
As I was drying Willie’s paws a few days ago, I thought about how much easier it is now that I say “Ready?” right before I pick up each leg. Since I started communicating my intention (“now I am going to pick up this paw”), he is beginning to pick up a paw himself, or at least shift his weight so that it is less awkward for him. (Yep, I could train him to pick up each paw on cue… also a potential solution, but keep reading for some potential benefits of a more generalized cue.)
Keep in mind that this is the dog who, as an adolescent, growled at me when I picked up a paw to dry off the mud. That was many years ago, and I remember saying something like “Oh, don’t be silly” and continuing what I was doing. He growled one or two more times, but we worked through it and I haven’t heard him growl at anything in years. However, he doesn’t enjoy his paws being cleaned, as most dogs don’t, and the process got me thinking about how little control a dog has over having his/her body moved around, even gently, without any say in the matter. That’s especially difficult if there is any pain involved in putting more weight than usual on one limb. I’ve always been aware of Will’s bad shoulder, and have always been extra careful about picking up the other paw, but a few months ago I started saying “Ready?” right before I picked up a paw, giving him a chance to shift his weight himself.
It’s made a difference to both of us. I lean down and put my hand close to a paw and say “Ready?” and he either shifts his weight or picks it up. Paw cleaning is not only faster, it feels like Will and I are moving down the same path, instead of trying to go in opposite directions. This is a cue that has so many applications; Will’s structural troubles require acupuncture and chiropractic, and he’s not the kind of hail-fellow-well-met who takes being handled lightly. I would bet the farm (and, hey, I have one) that handling Will with force and punishment would have created a severe aggression problem within a few months. In both cases, we give Will lots of options, using patience and communication during the treatments. He adores both practitioners, but he literally hides behind me when the greetings are over and it’s time for treatments. But we work through it, sort of like a dance; sometimes asking, sometimes quietly insisting, but always with an awareness that Will desperately needs to have some say in what is happening to him.
I know many others use cues like “Ready” for a variety of reasons. I’ve heard similar cues most often in obedience, meaning “Okay, time to start working together”. But I’ll bet there are many examples from your own experience of using a cue to communicate your intentions to a dog. I’d love to hear them. I think we’d all learn something from hearing about all the ways that concept can be used. (By the way, signals like “Ready” are called “meta-communication,” meaning “communication about communication.” A play bow is an example in dogs, meaning “Everything that happens next is in play, don’t take these bites and growls seriously!”
MEANWHILE, down on the farm: Back from another sheepdog trial, again with mixed results. This competition, the Nippersink Sink or Swim Sheepdog Trial, presents the hardest course of the season, with a substantial creek between you and the sheep. Here’s a photo of it (It looks much scarier in person!):
You can see the line of the creek crossing the course, down in a dip deep enough that you can’t see your dog as she crosses it. The sheep are under the oaks to the left of the white truck, very hard for the dogs to see. Because of all of our rain the creek was deep and fast moving, and I thought long and hard about even running Maggie at all. She’s a small dog, and if she got in trouble I wouldn’t be able to see her.
Many people that I trust assured me that it was safe, and after thinking about it all night, I decided to give her a chance. I can’t tell you why, but I had a gut feeling that I should “trust my dog.” (A lesson from an earlier trial, you may remember.) Maggie may be small, but she is a working sheepdog in excellent condition. The challenge that most dogs faced was finding the sheep at all. Many dogs saw the creek (much larger than it looks in the photo) as a fence line, and continually looked for the sheep on this side of it.
When Maggie and I went to the post I just had a feeling she could do it. However, after I sent her on a right handed outrun, she immediately ran to the barn behind us, even poking her nose into the door. This is a new, bad habit she started a few trials ago; I’m pretty sure it’s her way of saying “I’d really prefer to work these sheep here. After all, they’re right here and we know where they are . . .”
Sigh. But I got her off those sheep and damn if she didn’t leap into the creek and got herself across. She “crossed over” on the other side, running to the left and making a figure eight pattern, but finally went around in a big semi-circle in a clockwise direction and found her sheep. Yay! Sloppy and inelegant as it was, it felt like a great victory because so many dogs never found their sheep at all. She did a lovely “dog-leg” fetch (sheep moving above the creek horizontally to the left), but got stuck trying to get the sheep over the creek. There had been a bridge there that the sheep were familiar with, but it had been moved because of flooding. All the hoof prints and related scents were in the old area, and that’s where the sheep wanted to go. Maggie didn’t flank them fast enough to get them to the bridge’s new location, and they ended up stuck in front of a deep pool of water enmeshed in a stand of trees and brush. I had to walk out to rescue her and help her move the sheep. At one point I honestly wasn’t sure that the two of us could get them out. They weren’t in the trees as much as they had become the trees. So we got RT for “Retired”. Here’s why I didn’t feel too bad about it–look at the last column on the right: (Maggie only got one point for her outrun because she “crossed over,” which loses you 19/20 points.)
Our second run, same day, was in wind gusts up to 30 mph. It was cold too, had been in the low thirties that morning, so before we ran each time I warmed Maggie up with some play:
I sent her left, avoiding the temptation for her to go to the barn and in the direction she’d found the sheep earlier, but risking losing sight of her for a long time. Be still my heart (it’s swelling as I write), she ran a stunningly beautiful outrun, leapt over the creek where it was narrow enough, and got herself behind the sheep. (19/20 for her outrun.) Her lift took forever; I honestly can’t even tell you exactly where she was, I couldn’t see her. But she finally got the sheep moving, and this time, no doubt trying to prevent the “sheep in the trees” adventure, tried to bring them straight to me. That meant the sheep would have to cross the creek where the banks were steep and the water was deep, so I had to stop her and get her redirected. This time she listened (it took a few tries), moved the sheep to the left, but then flanked fast enough to get them over the bridge.
She did a lovely fetch after that, made the fetch panels and started a brilliant drive, riding the pressure from the sheep like a surfer. But halfway there she lost her confidence and it got messy and sloppy. We finally got them back on the right path, I didn’t make the drive gates but thought we’d gone far enough to start the cross drive, which was going beautifully. “Points!” I thought. Finally we’re going to get some points!
Alas, I made another handler error and was DQ’d by the judge. I hadn’t tried hard enough to make the drive gates, and he had no choice but to DQ me. I couldn’t fault him, and probably should have be madder at myself for yet another stupid mistake, but I was so proud of her for what she did right I couldn’t get too upset about it.
Here’s what I’ve learned from our first season in Open: Maggie and I are very much alike. We can get lost in our fears, need to work on our confidence, and don’t think well under time pressure when things get complicated. (Why was I so good at working with aggressive dogs years ago? I could make really good decisions in tenths of a second–where did that skill go?) Although we didn’t do well in many ways this season, we both learned a lot, and in spite of Maggie’s attempts to work the “easy sheep” at trials, she appears to adore trialing, and is over the moon eager to try again each time. This weekend we are going to a training clinic with one of my favorite trainers, Patrick Shannahan, and I look forward to working on some of our issues. Maggie doesn’t have the push that most handlers want and need in an Open dog, but she’s my dog, she’s what I have, and we are just going to do the best with what we have. I love the idea of helping a dog be the best she can be. If it’s not good enough for Open in years to come I won’t fault her, and be grateful for what we’ve learned together. Meanwhile, time will tell. Stay tuned for next year!
Now that we’re home, first frost! It made the zinnia’s look extra pretty this morning.
I hope your challenges this week don’t feel too overwhelming, all best to you and yours.