Willie, Maggie and I spent the last three days in sheepdog heaven at a Patrick Shannahan clinic, reveling in fall colors, great dogs, good company and the always brilliant advice of Patrick. I love working with him for his benevolence, his clear explanations and his gentle insistence that our dogs do what’s right without us having to micro-manage them. Good advice for me, given that I often fall into “helper” mode and tell my dogs specifically what to do (“go right, walk up, go left”) rather than making it clear that their job is to find the “pressure” from the sheep and stay on it.
Best part of the weekend? When Maggie and I clicked and we drove the sheep straight across the field with Maggie in complete control of the flock, even when they wanted to run forward, and Maggie was behind them. Can you picture that?
Here’s a photo to illustrate. This is young Davy, the young dog of my good friend Donna (also at the clinic), who is in the early stages of learning to drive. In this case he is actually fetching the sheep to Donna, and doing it perfectly. But we can use this photos as an illustration. Imagine that you want the sheep to move to nine o’clock on a clock face. See how that white face ewe is looking a bit toward you? She’s telling us she wants to move toward 7 o’clock rather than nine. Once your dog learns to drive and to stay on the “pressure point,” he would move around to counter that desire of the sheep to move toward us, to exactly the right point to “hold” the sheep on the correct line. In our illustration below, Davy would swing around clockwise to about 4:30 or 5, depending on how strong the magnet was pulling the sheep in a particular direction. Young dogs want to run to 6 o’clock, to get everything stopped. But that doesn’t put the dog in control of the sheep, it’s more like a ‘stop gap’ measure.
Done right, your dog keeps the sheep from running straight forward by walking behind them exactly on the “pressure point”. When you do it wrong, the sheep take off in a dead run, your dog panics and circles around to bring them back to you (“I’ve got em! Not going to let them get away!!”) It takes tons of practice to control the sheep from behind, and most importantly, to teach your dog that his or her job is to find the pressure and ride it like a wave, rather than just obediently doing what you ask. Maggie and I worked at it all weekend, and went forward three steps, then back two, then forward again… But we both learned tons, and had a wonderful time. Willie even got to work quite a bit, moving sheep around for other handlers. Most importantly, he got to schmooze with dedicated dog lovers for hours on end, which is his favorite activity.
MEANWHILE, back on the farm: It’s hot (well, it’s in the 60’s, but it’s all relative) and humid. Not exactly typical fall weather. But it’s gorgeous too. The fall colors and the gracious hosting of Laura Wentz made for a wonderful three days at the clinic. Here’s a photo montage of the weekend. Miss Big Ears with the stunned expression on her face is Janet’s Cricket, and the photo of clinic photographers is a testament to Canon cameras… we all have one. The dog getting her head scratched is Ivy, Laura’s sweet Spanish Mastiff cross who works tirelessly to protect the sheep from coyotes.
There were lots of new calves on the farm, and ample opportunity to play with one’s camera. I loved the peeling paint on an old barn. That’s Tweed in the water tank and Moxie of the adorable face and pointy ears, and young Davy doing a great job all weekend.