Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Dog, Woman, Sheep

Wolfie and I had our weekly herding lesson today. Or rather, he got to do what he wants and knows to do, and I tried to learn to guide him, and then get out of his way.

In many ways, these lessons are the highlight of our week. Addicted as I am to them, however, I find them challenging.

Here's how it goes. We drive some twenty minutes to Sarah's place (Sarah is our instructor). I let Wolfie out of the car ONLY after he makes eye contact with me—which can take a while since he needs to take in all the smells that have settled over the place since the last lesson.

We greet Sarah, then go through the sit, make eye-contact, release ritual through a series of gates until we get to the pen where the sheep are. We're talking only three or four sheep here--not herds of hundreds--wise and experienced and not easily rattled.

I take my place at the head of the sheep, who are wide and woolly, and who for some reason seem to want to follow me (so unlike goats!). I start walking them around the perimeter of the pen, then tell Wolfie to “walk up.” With Sarah holding a long leash, Wolfie “puts pressure” on the sheep from behind. If he puts too much “pressure” by following too quickly or too closely, I'm supposed to stop him and make him sit.

How am I supposed to know when he's putting on too much pressure, if I'm facing away from him? By the way the sheep act. How am I supposed to make him sit from a distance, when all he wants to do is run after the sheep? By sheer force of will, power of personality, intensity of intention.

If you haven't been around sheep a lot, it's not easy to discern the moment at which they “feel the dog” and alter their pace. Nor is it easy to get your sheep-obsessed dog to drop to a sit at twenty paces. My first obedience class was somewhere in the late 1970s. My last one was a couple of months ago. During all those intervening decades I heard “if your dog doesn't comply with a command instantly, go and enforce it,” i.e., walk up to him and MAKE him sit.

But in herding, if you walk back to your dog to enforce a “sit,” you are abandoning your sheep, which makes your dog want to rush in and take care of them himself.

The only option for me, then, is, the moment the sheep alter their gait, to whirl around and, calmly and masterfully, project such laser-like energy with my command that Wolfie will instantly drop into a sit. (The reward for a herding dog who sits, BTW, is neither treats nor pats, but a “walk up” command to go after his beloved sheep again.)

In desperation, I thought I would try visualizing Wolfie in a sit as I gave the command. I'd read and heard about visualizing your dog doing whatever you wanted him to do, but had never thought it as efficient as a good “snap and release” on the leash.

This morning, having nothing to lose, I decided to try it. “Sit!” I said, while staying with my sheep. I pictured Wolfie sitting ten feet behind us, and by golly, he did. “Walk up,” I said, and started walking with the sheep. The minute they began to speed up, I whirled around and said “sit!” to the thundering Wolfie. Just in time, I remembered to visualize, and he sat.

This worked amazingly well for a while. Then I started to lose it, and inevitably, so did he. Something happened to my focus, my concentration, my will. I got distracted by the sheep, the sweat running down my face, the bugs. It wasn't working anymore. My mind was mush. It was time to quit. Sarah nicely got Wolfie to drive the sheep into a corner so we could tell him “that'll do!” and praise and pet him, and the lesson was over.

I came home exhausted. I couldn't understand why. The exercises we'd been doing in the relatively small pen were not physically challenging. It must have been the mind part, the visualization, the part that made Wolfie do what I wanted him to do without an outward sign. The weird part.

Why did it work so well, and why did it take so much out of me?

12 comments :

  1. Having seen this done at sheep & wool festival here in Missouri, I'm impressed you are undertaking it.

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  2. Bridgett, I've watched those herding trials too, and it always looks like magic.

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  3. Wow. I'm impressed as well and I've never seen a real sheep herding dog herding sheep except on television. Although, in Ireland last year I did see a dog herding cows.

    My daughter took care of a neighbor's dog last summer which turned out to be an Australian sheep dog or whatever it was called. It tried to heard her and she loved it after someone explained it to her.

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  4. Of course I meant it tried to herd her (not heard).

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  5. Dona, many dogs of herding breeds will herd humans relentlessly if they don't have sheep to work. I know several people here in Vermont who started out with a herding dog and ended up with 30 sheep, a barn, pastures, electric fences, and all the rest, just to keep the dog busy.

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  6. I have a friend who swears his collie used to bark if the toilet seat wasn't left the right way (not sure which way that was).

    I have to say, I was actually taken aback by your use of BTW in this post. It's not that I have a problem with it; it's become as common as FYI. It just seemed out of character for you. IMHO.

    Looking forward to picnicking in the rain with you tonight!

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  7. OMG, I guess I'm not completely impervious to the prevailing idiom!

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  8. A while back, when Tasha was still with us, I took her to a pet psychic. While I believe in animal communication generally, I tend to be skeptical about people who set themselves up as experts, and I know how "cold reading" works. So I determined to say nothing, to give the psychic no clue as to whether she was on target or not.

    She started off with a couple of "maybes" when she said Tasha loved cheeseburgers (what dog doesn't?) and became sad when we passed dead animals on the road (that was probably me she was reading). But then she said that Mom had had a bout with cancer, and when she came back from the hospital in a weakened state, Tasha was markedly different toward her, gentle and solicitous; and that my father had died in the '80s, and Tasha had never met him. Both statements were astoundingly true. She said he came to "visit" us occasionally, and Tasha could almost see him but would stand there, staring into the next room fixedly, not barking, but alert over what seemed like nothing. Also true.

    So I listened when she told me that effective animal communication was a combination of two elements: visualization (a clear image of what you want the animal to know), and a powerful burst of personal energy. She said, however, that the latter is not a matter of willpower or psychic strength. It is done most effectively if we tell ourselves we are supremely powerful entities, and from a place of peace and centeredness, we send a bolt of calm, assertive energy coupled with the visual image of what we want to achieve—the dog sitting immediately and making eye contact, for example. And it worked for me.

    Tasha started communicating with me the same way, with sudden images thrust into my head. I always knew when she needed to go out, even if she wasn't whining or standing at the door. She would tell me what specifically she was hungry for. At the end, she told me she was ill and didn't want to go on living like that, so we said our goodbyes and I put her in the car to go to the vet's to get the Shot. On the way there, she nudged my arm lovingly as she had done a hundred times before, lay down on the seat, and died.

    So I think you're definitely on the right track; you're just trying too hard. "Sending power" is much more effective, and much easier, if you are peaceful and quiet; if you were a god, you'd just raise an eyebrow to have something happen. Take the same approach, and I think you'll find those bursts of command energy are nearly effortless.

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  9. This is terrific, Craig. Thank you so much. I'll certainly try it. The person you consulted doesn't happen to have a website, does she?

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  10. This was so long ago I no longer remember her name. She wasn't famous, at least at the time.

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  11. A thought suddenly popped into my mind and I thought I'd share it.

    Some time ago I started working with healing energies, and noticed that my hands got hot. I thought that was a good thing until a friend pointed out that only poorly insulated wiring gets hot; otherwise it's indicative of a block in the line, like a crimp in a garden hose: some water will probably flow through, and the hose will bulge, but it certainly won't be as effective. When I realized how much tension I was holding in my body when I worked with energy, it all made sense, and when I let go of tension, the energy flowed much more effectively.

    So as you send your command, take note of any tension in your body. Are your muscles clenched? Are your shoulders and arms rigid? Are you holding your breath? If so, exhale, and go limp, and once that's done, try sending the energy/command/image again, and see if that doesn't make a difference.

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  12. Craig, sounds like good advice. I think I'll try it under less demanding circumstances than the sheep pen at first. When I'm trying to keep track of the sheep AND Wolfie (all of them in motion)it's all I can do to keep from tripping over my own feet. And I'm sure I'm stiff as a board the whole time.

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