Sunday, October 6, 2013

Herding vs. Agility

Today was the Northeast English Shepherd Gathering.  Thanks Marianne, Nika's breeder, for organizing a great event!

The weather didn't cooperate especially well, but everything else did.  There were lots (35ish?) of English Shepherds there, and Nika made so. many. friends.  She's still bad about jumping on people.  I keep thinking she'll grow out of it, but it hasn't happened yet.  The excitement makes it worse.  She played with lots of dogs and had a grand time.  Jonah came out and was a very good boy, too.  He would bark at Nika but was excellent with all the other dogs and people.  Last year he found the whole thing a bit stressful, but today he didn't show any signs of that.

One of the highlights of the event was that we got to try herding.  Cool.  I didn't really know what to expect.  Nika was the first dog to go.  Marianne picked us because she said she knew my dogs would be in control.  Ha.  I was worried that, having never been exposed to livestock, control wouldn't be the first adjective you'd use to describe Nika.  That might still be true, but she turned out to be a really good girl.  

We entered the pen and she was distracted.  She saw the sheep but they weren't moving, and she thought the smells around the ground were about as interesting as the sheep.  When the trainer got them to walk, she was interested, but kept checking with me like, "Mom, that's kind of cool, but I'm paying attention to you like a good girl."  I'd walk towards the sheep and she basically heeled with me, checking back and forth between the sheep and me like, "I don't really know what I'm doing, but those things are neat."  At one point a sheep turned around and stamped its foot at Nika.  Nika ran around behind me.  In general, I wouldn't say she was especially scared, but she wasn't sure.  By the end, she was getting more bold, maybe even too bold.  She'd lunge towards the sheep and they'd run, rather than keeping a steady pace.

The trainer thought she had instinct and was well behaved (she'd lie down on command for me, etc.) but a little distracted.  She thought Nika's young age might contribute, and that she could be good at herding, but that it would take regular practice (which, in the suburbs, isn't easy).  So, I left thinking that it was neat but that Nika wasn't really cut out to be the world's greatest herding dog, especially given the fact that I love agility and want to spend time on that.

So, we went back to agility :).  We had brought some equipment and set it up for a demo.  It was interesting.  There were tons of dogs around, and Nika was pretty distracted.  Much more so than at a typical trial.  We started, she knocked a bar, had some off courses, couldn't see the weaves, which were right next to a white fence, and then got herself caught in the chute, which was really bogged down with rain.  Our second attempt went much smoother, but then a puppy came romping into the area to join in, and focus went right out the window.  I think it was still a decent taste of agility for the people watching, and it's not like we're world team members anyway.  Not our best work by far, but fun nonetheless.  Then a bunch of people played around on the equipment with their dogs, which they really seemed to enjoy.  Yay for exposing new people to agility!

Then it was Jonah's turn to try herding.  When we took him down to the area, he was barking when he first saw the sheep.  The trainer had mentioned the importance of dogs staying quiet, so I was thinking she wouldn't have much tolerance for Jonah's antics.  I told her that if it just wasn't going to work, that was fine and she should just say so.  After all, (at least to my knowledge) he wasn't bred in herding lines like she was.  To my surprise, she asked if it was his first time seeing sheep and, when I said yes, she shrugged and said it was a pretty typical reaction.  The first couple times he got near them, he barked and lunged, but then he settled right down.  And he was awesome!  Confident, calm, focused, and he just seemed to get it really well.  We moved the sheep around, changed direction, went the other way, and he was a total star.  Not distracted at all like Nika had been.  After a couple minutes the instructor said he was doing great so it was time for the next step.  She took the long line from me and had me go in front of the sheep.  Well, Jonah continued to show interest and instinct, but he was really worried about the instructor and kept looking over his shoulder at her, and then back to the sheep, then over at me.  He did fine, but after a few minutes when he walked by the gate he just stopped there, saying, "I'm done."

I have a few overall thoughts to compare agility and herding.  It may not be a fair representation of herding, but this is based just on my little taste:
  • Handling agility is WAY more fun because you get to run.
  • The instructor made a good point:  herding should be about practical work with livestock, not just entertaining dogs.  If I got into herding, it would really just be for the sake of the dogs.  I don't have any need in my current lifestyle to be moving sheep around.
  • In agility/obedience, checking in with the handler is really important.  In herding, handler focus is really a minimum.  Nika needed more obstacle/sheep focus but kept looking for me for encouragement and direction.
  • Agility can be more positive.  When Jonah barked at the sheep, I was told to "reprimand" him.  What?  I don't even know what that means, and I'm glad.  (I just called him back to me.  He came.  I asked him to sit.  He did.)
  • Food-motivation doesn't really translate to herding.  Both my dogs like to work for food.  They'll work for toys, too.  Neither had a place here.  
  • I think of Nika as my confident dog, but after today I think some of that depends on my ability to play with her happily through verbal praise, toys, food, etc. When those go away in an uncertain situation, she really wants to please and the lack of those is almost like negative reinforcement for her.
  • It's cool how much natural instinct both dogs have.  Neat to watch.  And Jonah really seemed to get satisfaction out of it.  Maybe Nika would, too, if she gained more confidence that she was doing it right.  Obviously my own lack of knowledge contributes to my inability to guide them, but they did darn well despite my blunders!

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