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Donald McCaig

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Dear Doggers,


When I got Fly, her neck was so rigid I couldn’t bend her head lest she bite me. After any walk (and later on at trials) she’d dash back to the safety of the house or car. After she started working sheep again and would take some training she’d dash home the moment she finished without sparing me a glance.


Two steps forward one step back – but her age clock is ticking.


She ran well at Kingston, next day very badly. Tom Lacy awarded her first place this spring at the Tuckahoe trial. Fly ran so poorly at the Highland trial, Judge Lacy couldn’t believe she was the same dog.


I seemed to have a dog that when her mood was right, the weather pretty nice during the correct phase of the moon she’d run like every handler’s dream but if someone said something rude in the parking lot, or I was sneezing before we walked out on the course she’d fail to hold pressure on the fetch, regather on the drive and hate every second of it.


These are uncharted waters for me and I suspect for most handlers. It is more time and money efficient to rehome a dog like Fly than rehab her. But no other sheepdogger would have kept her and putting her in a pet home would be a one way ticket to the animal shelter.


I like Fly and though she tolerates others I’m the only two legs she trusts (After two years, she won’t take a walk with our other dogs and Anne). And she’s taught me more about dogs than decent trial scores would have. Fly has been my PHD in sheepdog psychology.


So: what’s worked and what hasn’t?


What hasn’t is clearer: trying to convince her trials were no different than chore work, insisting she behave like other dogs, using other dogs to draw her, using sheep motion to trigger her instincts, loud voice corrections, keeping her as safe as she’d like to be.


The jury’s still out but what seems to have worked is calmness, Anne’s patience (Anne’s amused by Fly), routine, lots of low intensity work segueing into short bursts of trial drill, reinforced by more insistence on commands during that routine low intensity work. Frequent trials have desensitized Fly though anything weird (cf Kingston 2) destroys her.


Inbye (Split, pen shed) she’s brilliant. She draws confidence from my nearness and –probably– she responds to my trust in her. Win/win.


Outwork. Because her outrun came to me as a “Hill gather” I didn’t fool with it. BUT – as an aging hill dog she KNEW that if she came in a little tight and bumped the sheep, they’d start toward the shepherd and without much effort she could just follow along. This tactic worked fine on the farm but her trial outrun deteriorated, her fetch was horrid and for a long time she wouldn’t take training pressure.


When she could, I began redirecting her outrun and insisting on a full stop at the top. I wanted her to submit to my authority and bring the sheep not follow them.


Her problem on the drive/crossdrive was quitting. “Oh, the hell with it!”: she’d hold them against the fence or fetch them back to me. I drilled the drive (starting short and gradually going longer). and keeping at it until she got it right.


And I showed her the world wasn’t as scary as she’d believed. She spent nights in unfamiliar hotels and motels and friend’s homes. She met hundreds of strangers on book tours. She wandered the trial grounds. No big deal.


I believe any creature with the capacity for full engagement is half alive absent that engagement but that’s my belief and if Fly had a vote, she might choose to be a chore dog licking her fur beside the wood stove. Not every violin player can be (or wants to be) Itzack Perlman.


At the Pipedream trial, she crossed over first run (my fault) and upset the sheep that were rank in the heat of the day. But Fly stayed at it, did as bid on the fetch and drive and got her shed and (tricky) pen. Lousy score but the exhausted Fly didn’t quit. Next day I redirected her outrun, hit the panels, got the split but she wasn’t really holding them and I didn’t dare press her too much. Another bad score but she ran ok if not well for me two days in a row.


She’ll be 8 in January, an age when trial dogs should be at their peak of athleticism and experience. Because she’s older, she’s increasingly set in her ways. I’ll persist with rehab so long as we are learning. We may fail but if Fly’s not my trial dog , she’ll be my chore dog and I’ll be grateful for the lessons she’s taught me.


Fly’s not keen. She doesn’t watch sheep other dogs are working. Unlike every sheepdog I’ve previously owned, Fly works to please me (and worries she's not) instead of finding her satisfactions in the work. Rarely something clicks, she forgets her worries and becomes my Stradavarius: lost in the beauties of our shared work.


An interviewer once asked Octavio Paz if he wrote every day or waited for inspiration. He replied, “ I go in to work every day. What if my muse should appear and I wasn’t there?”


Which is another way of saying: you don’t trial for a thousand yards at a thousand yards. You train for a thousand yards in the small ring and the training paddock and how a dog gets in the car and how it follows you into the motel. Last week Fly helped worm two hundred ewes, in a tight pen squeezing through sheep that didn’t have anywhere to go. She’s been spotting for handlers preparing for the Finals. Her down/stay while other dogs pick sheep up off her has improved our relationship.


To get my Strad, trials must be less important to Fly and me. She fails from trying too hard and I fail by treating her like a cripple and neglecting my responsibilities.


Grace is a gift that never comes easy.


After her last run at Pipedream, Fly beelined for the water but returned to accept my thanks. Miss Stiffneck then rolled over on her back so I could scratch her belly.


Donald McCaig

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I always love reading about Fly - the ups, the downs, the all-arounds.


And I enjoyed scratching her chin this weekend, getting a gentle wag of her tail, and watching her enjoy the life you have given her.

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I enjoy following yours and Fly's journeys.

I recognize in my dog the inconsistency you speak of, and difficulty completely sustaining a good run or day. She can surprise me, sometimes acting like a raw youngster on a simple task -- yes, a knot-head. Other times, I have to stand in wonder at how far she has progressed. Couple weeks ago she casted-out quite a distance up a big hill characterized by several finger-like ridges that begin as gentle slopes from the crest, but about mid-way down they drop steeply to the pasture below. She ran an OLF I'll never forget. Only second time up a hill of that type. All the parts fell into place. I gave one "stand" whistle at the top which she took, and a few "steady" whistles on the way down. She gathered the flock scattered across the ridges, and gently eased them to the bottom, IME to trial standards. As you mentioned, Fly has shown a fine Stradavarius in her. I believe that remembering moments of brilliance keeps a handler energized to continue developing a dog's full potential, whatever eventual form that may take.

Like others said, the Paz quote was right on the mark. Today I came across a quote of Ezra Pound. His politics will likely keep much of his writing in obscurity, yet he heavily influenced many authors' style, including a favorite of mine, Hemingway (Pound was born in Hailey, Idaho, and Hemingway died in Ketchum -- about 20 miles and 75 years apart).

As I understand the story, Pound was having a hard time getting the right translation of a piece. He thought the problem lay not in his knowledge of the other language, but in his use of English:

"What obfuscated me was not the Italian but the crust of dead English, the sediment present in my own available vocabulary ... You can't go round this sort of thing. It takes six or eight years to get educated in one's art, and another ten to get rid of that education."

It's incredibly difficult to unlearn something. For instance, on close inspection, a generic fix-all may never have made sense from the beginning, or perhaps does not stand-up to reason in a particular case.

The other point he makes is that we don't always have words to fully express certain concepts. I believe good two-way communication with a stockdog has that inherent problem. As I recall, you have remarked on this issue in several previous posts.

I'm attempting to get rid of a number of flawed sheepdog training techniques learned years ago. Very difficult for me, but still trying. A person certainly shouldn't throw-out everything, but Pound's quote IMO applies to many areas of endeavor.

Like Paz said, I'll keep going-in to work, but at the same time I will keep a close eye on the efficacy of conventional wisdom. Josie's my work in progress, and that suits us well.

Best wishes with Fly. You'll figure her out. Look forward to your posts. --TEC

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