The Bizness of Ambition

“What we hope for and wish for equate to fantasy; but what we strive for and we work for is our ambition.” – Derek John Fisher

“It’s too cold to work dogs. Have some more spiced wine and let’s talk about what it’s going to take for Biz to win Nursery this year.” – Katy Madrid

I worked dogs with DJF yesterday in a big mint field next to my house. It was just like those double mint commercials with hot twins ….only Derek chewed my ass instead of gum and I chewed Biz’s. The focus was virtually never on our perpetual gleaming smiles. Still, other than that – we did double our fun and Derek and I are built similarly these days.

I have not been working Biz, except here and there; worrying that I wasn’t helping her…because, other than opening gates, I wasn’t. Again, with training dogs, I tend to default to how I raised my children – lots and lots of slack, some suggestions….and the occasional outburst of temper over something trivial.

Biz has a nice natural outrun, but can be too wide or, if the sheep take off before she gets to her comfort zone, or fail to move reasonably – she’ll rush into them and then orbit wide after scattering their nappy asses assunder. I then chase after her, shouting obscenities until I fall into a hole and cry or she downs herself back on balance. We usually disagree on the Lie Down place and time.

Derek: “Don’t ever make her lie down unless she’s at balance. Balance is the fuel that feeds the engine. If you insist that she lie down off balance, she will stop trusting you.”

Now, this is something that I *know*, that I have LONG known…but that I seem to forget with Biz. One of us being on the ground seems to be the point of both of us being out there.

Derek: “With Biz it’s really important that you make sure she knows you are boss – because, really, you and she trade places being Lead Bitch. And I suspect you only take the role on while she’s sleeping…”
(I’m paraphrasing, but only slightly).

It’s true. Biz treats me like a peer, at best. A beloved wench. I think she assumes that I was hired into my position and, from what she’s seen, she is glad that she has me and  not some of the other Kibble Distributors and Gate Openers she’s met. She’s happy to bring me sheep because I seem to want to share the experience with her, but I should take up a stringed instrument, maybe, or throw a ball for the less talented beasts while she does her thing.  I’m just not that necessary.

Derek: “You need to make your point with her, make her respect you, but give back quickly because Biz’s big asset is her Attitude.”

Biz loves to work. She likes to get started without me. She waits for as long as she feels is fair and then starts creeping in a sheepward direction.

Derek: “Tell her to lie down!”
Derek: “She isn’t lying down. Make her Lie Down and show her you mean it.”

When Biz feels corrected, her big ears go lateral to her head. It’s a really funny look, but easy to read. It took me putting her back to where she started a couple of times, strongly, but she got the point.

Really, once I enforced her Lie Down and Stay There Until I Say Different, it all became so nice so quickly. Her outrun became less hesitant and more in contact and she stopped when I told her, most times. Because I remembered to be right, most times.

Biz is probably the only dog on the planet whom I could hope to train without a complete intervention. She is very smart and she loves to be right. I love her Attitude.  She also loves to work. I love to work too, but sometimes I’m more comfortable with fantasy.

Night Moves

I work Jai at night.  It wasn’t a plan at first, but it’s just worked out that way and I like it.  Before bed; before the neighbor’s start shooting toward the incessant barking that is my young great pyrenees, Inez, I have to move the sheep from the field to the night pen.  The night pen has a water tank that doesn’t freeze – just like Inez’s larynx and her incessant lust for sheep tag.

Working Jai at night isn’t radically different from working her in the day, technically.  The difference, in fact, is mostly in my head. It’s not a routine yet so I enjoy it more.  Because it’s later at night, I’m quiet, which Jai likes.  Also the dark means I have to use more than just my sense of sight and WTF… I have to be more aware in general.  Even just adding that I have to LISTEN for the sheep and their pace seems to make me process more carefully and fully. I’m not doing big outruns at night; it’s close enough that I can make a correction and run up the small field, if necessary.

As stated before, I’ve struggled to stay engaged in working my dogs lately.
This night work suits me in many ways right now, though I haven’t tried it with Biz yet.  I will soon with Biz, I think she will like it and it will suit her.

Duke…does not need the cover of darkness.  He IS the cover of darkness.
I worked Duke on Sunday and he dragged me 10 yards through sheep shit.  It would have been further, but his long line finally caught on something larger than me and my GODDAMN IT LIE DOWN.  He isn’t a fan of the Away.  He tends to take it part way and with his mouth open in anticipation.  His come by is usually nice.
Sometimes I think Duke believes, like most men in my geographic area, that with my skills and timing, I belong in the kitchen, where recipes can be read and timers can be SET.  Where a bitch can stay WARM and use her THUMBS to their best advantage.  Or maybe that’s me thinking that, laying in a trail of green slush.

Regardless, Duke’s getting to be a big dog. If I don’t anticipate the moment when his training bond with me has fractured and it’s all about the sheep….bad things unfold. He wants to be good, but I’m worried I’m not helping him.  Happily he’s young and I, in so many ways, am flexible. dukenbizJPG

Back to the Future

Years ago, when I took up snow sports because all my friends were, of course, accomplished snow boarders and could ski backwards holding chainsaws, I was given two solid pieces of advice:

!) Take lessons – you will learn the right habits up front and not have to relearn over bad habits.

2) Don’t ever wear that weird looking snow suit my friend Cindy gave me one year for Xmas, the one she purchased in a thrift shop that looked like something aliens would wear to visit earth for the first time in the 50s.

I didn’t take lessons because I have always tended to believe that I. Know. Best.  Especially with physical stuff.  I can FEEL what’s right.  My technique in skiing and snow boarding is to hurl myself down hill and when I need to stop – throw myself at the softest place in view and roll like a motherfucker.  I am really good at falling from my earlier years learning to ride a horse, and later mountain biking.  Falling is a BIG part of my sports technique.  Or my technique in general.  I’m good at scoping ahead for a nice place to land. Generally.

And I wore that space suit everywhere for years.  It was not only the warmest thing ever, it’s hideousness cleared a path for falling.   People would part like a sea of OMG and stare in fascination as I careened past.  It didn’t take a snow genius to figure out Planet 9 hadn’t sent an Olympic hopeful.  Instinct told even the beginners, and pets on trail, that standing still and making yourself small was the only hope for not being involved in whatever ultimate tragedy inertia had in store for Suzy Spacesuit.

So for years a big part of my strategy in life has been ignoring the basics and counting on some point in the future to help me come to a soft conclusion.  I have never cared about the BEAUTY of how I got there, or that no one wanted to share a lift.

Thus, I haven’t been regular about working my dogs lately.  I’ve been uncharacteristically reticent to f*ck them up.  The beauty behind getting to the conclusion is key to everything in this sport and I understand that.  Biz and Duke are young and just learning the basics, especially Duke.  Jai and I needed time off.  I wish it were more about me hurling myself at the post and then eventually falling my way off the field, but it involves OTHERS, so that throws me off my game.  Or it has.

But I have these dogs to work and trial.  I bought this place so I could have sheep for them. I’ve moved to a land where the nearest decent cocktail is so far away, I might as well have gone back to Planet 9.

I don’t actually CARE, thank god, about winning a trial.  I only really care about what I have ever really cared about – the communication, the subtlety, the beauty in these dogs doing what they do.

SO: it won’t be pretty, but we’re going to do what we can do.  I’m reading and watching videos.  I will go to clinics,  get help when we can from friends, and have fun with my dogs on sheep.

I wish I could find the Suit, because it’s colder than an arctic fuck out there.

Months of This

It’s that time of the year when all Jai and I want to do is lay on the couch underneath heavy blankets, with a fire in the background, and wish she knew how to cook dinner.

When I say ‘cook’, I mean open packaging. I’m letting my stove biodegrade into mouse habitat, as nature intended.  Cooking is for people with families who have expectations beyond kibble.  My family is on all fours these days.  Their expectations are more When, not What. They will eat anything. Really. It’s disheartening to buy expensive treats only to watch the gusto with which Biz consumes coyote shit.

I WISH I had raised my children on a kibble, by the way.  I mean a high quality crunchy pellet – not Old Roy or anything.  They should make a kibble for kids. Kiddle. Taste of the Wild, maybe, featuring a feral looking toddler, crashing through the brush to get at a bowl of brown nougats that claim to include bison, carrots and …peanut butter? Or Duck, Sweet Potato and Ice Cream.
A complete meal. In a bag. As I like.

That’s the stuff I think about on the couch with Jai.

Biz and Duke want to be worked.  I need to run. It’s snowing,

I can hardly wait until June.

Duke and Biz

Yesterday I worked Duke and Biz at DDs. She has better sheep for us. She has advice. My sheep are better suited for baiting coyotes. Or practicing your publicly decreed “GODDAMNIT”s. My own advice tends toward, “Let’s save our Goddamnits for the spring…”

Biz out of the box came with a nice wide outrun. It took very little from me to make her outrun longer and prettier. She likes to stay wide, often too wide; or she flies in and busts through the sheep. I’ve been lulled into a false sense of security because of her beautiful big outruns and that she is a fast learner…but now that I’m starting to try and put a drive on her, it is obvious that like me, she has no flanks. That’s our challenge now – putting flanks on her and helping her learn that she can work at the proper distance and be comfortable. I should say that, in my office at work, I am exactly the same way. I send email. I approach a meeting like Biz approaches her sheep. I don’t like subtle adjustments. I wish Biz and I shared an office. I’d make her go to all the meetings…

Duke – you can’t hurt his feelings, which is nice, BUT he also DOES CARE about what you think of him. So, he takes corrections, but he doesn’t lose heart. I love this. I have never had this (in a sane dog). Every time I work him he is better. He is so young, I figure it’s only a matter of some confidence and additional time before he is harder for me to train. I started out deeply afraid of him. I like sensitive dogs because I don’t tend to have much of a bubble and would prefer not to spend my training time ramping up corrections, or crying, or both, usually. Duke, not being an especially sensitive dog, worried me. Initially, though Lavon was able to get him to flank both sides, because of his timing and bubble – he was naturally mostly just a sheep chasing machine. It required timing to even insert oneself into his very rapid sphere of influence. As I’ve said, timing for me is more geologic.

Duke is not sensitive, but he does like approval. There is a moment at the end of his training, when you have to break his eye contact with the sheep and say, “DUKE! That’ll do!” …he doesn’t want to let go, but he does. And he is a good boy. He knows it. I love that moment.


“The ultimate goal of farming is not the growing of crops, but the cultivation and perfection of human beings.”
― Masanobu Fukuoka, The One-Straw Revolution

I’m sure the punchline is in this dude’s last name.

I am not a farmer and my cultivation of perfection is limited to things I can do without getting John Deere involved.  The only reason I was posessed by rural seed-mongering demons to even consider owning 11 acres was the random delusional thought of, “That’s where I’ll put my sheep! How happy and productive we’ll be!” alternated with, “That’s 11 acres between my “GODDAMN IT, LIE THE FUCK DOWN” and the next neighbor…which isn’t precisely true, since I have a tiny neighbor dwelling across the canal.  He has 100 ferel cats and some chickens. He seems, so far, immune to my screaming. I have the cats to thank for that.  And Inez, my Great Pyr, who barks incessantly at them.

The reality is: I have 11 acres that promises itself to weeds and burrs tall enough to eat my 6 bitter sheep if I don’t find someone to farm it by next spring.  This is not as easy, this quest for Perfection and maybe a few ton of Alfalfa,  as ole M. Fukuoka makes it sound. No one wants to farm my shitty 11 acres.  11 acres is just enough to fit a tractor on, but not worth the trouble of doing so, apparently. 11 acres is more suited to the sort of cultivation of perfection that might include abandoned automobiles and goats.

Because I seek all my wisdom from The Google, I typed in “Eleven Acres” to see what wisdom would spring forth.  Results: U-Pick Fruits and Vegetable Farm (Spokane, WA).
Fukuoka, Google.  Aside from the limitations this puts on my ever using the field for anything other than encouraging PICKING by OTHERS at the EXPENSE OF MY AND MY DOG’S PERFECTION (except Scout, who might thrive under this scenario), the thought of all that actual FARMING makes my inner food groups turn on eachother and scream ONLY MEAT!!
I planted a garden this year and with the happy exception of a bounty of tomatoes, rising above the sea of weeds, the rest is a huge rotting FUKUOKA, PLANTSTRESS, YOU AND YOUR 20 pound Cucumber!

I take my perfection in 2-3 hour doses.  Then I like repose.  I’m an immediate gratification person.  If I have to wait for something, It will lose value until it’s only real redemption is compost or an illustrative example of something I’ll never try again.
I’ll probably have a garden again next year.  I’m looking into which weeds you can eat.
And which are suitable for U-Pick.

Start, Drive, Neutral, and WTF

This weekend I, with DDs help, started Duke.  He’s only nearly 8 months, but he seems ready.  He has been breaking out of the yard and joining me in my big pasture when I work the other dogs.  He isn’t insane about it, like a puppy; he usually goes around and, with some fierce reluctance, will call off.

I’ve been afraid of opening this door formally for Duke. Like approaching that suspicious unattended, yet attractive package at the airport. Sure, it could be full of cash or cool clothes in my size— or it could be motherfucking snakes. One thing I am NOT: A puppy trainer. Biz is easy, and she is training us both. Duke has more….velocity.

Long story short, he was very good. The second day even better.

DD thinks I should be working him regularly, so that is the plan.  He doesn’t really have a stand, or lie down – he prefers to sit, if anything – a nice compromise, sort of dashing even – but, style points aside,  he takes correction and he really really really wants to work.  He had been on sheep a few times in the last couple of months, and was always very interested, but fast and focused on the moving wool to the exclusion of much else. He required precision timing…instead of the sort that comes with a sun dial, which is what I have.  Now Duke seems to be actually working and letting someone help him figure it out.  On or off the field, I couldn’t like Duke more.  I’m sure within the next few months he will scare the living shit out of me and be the source of much crying and cussing, but so was my new industrial strength weed whacker, and that turned out okay. I’m also certain in the end Duke will be completely different from my other dogs in a really fun way.

I’m teaching (ha) Biz to drive by taking my current 6 crazed sheep across the lane into a big mint field. I’m hoping the combination of large unfamiliar ground, coupled with mint being a popular ingredient to serve with lamb, will keep their pace more moderate and unsure, this giving Biz a chance to feel them and appreciate driving the way she really values an outrun and endless fetch. So far, so good. If not, I’ll add garlic and some wine.  I may anyway.

Jai and I are building confidence.  We watch movies together and snuggle.  We run longer distances in prettier places.  We do happy work in the pasture where everything is Ok and corrections are for lenses, not dogs.   Jai takes on my emotions and the last year there have been too many for a sensitive border collie to absorb without gripping something.  I envy her that outlet, sarcasm and wine don’t cut it like a good pair of canines.  I also envy her ceaseless optimism and ability to eat an entire plate of cookies in the time it takes me to shut a cupboard not 15 feet away and still keep her girlish figure.

Scout continues to wish she had her dead mother stuffed in the attic.  Or that I’d let her work the chickens more.  We compromise by me never looking under the bed in her room.

Pup Dates

It’s hard to write about working my dogs when I’m….actually not.  I have a 10 acre pasture full of tumble weed, a dog who is seemingly so sensitive that if she had thumbs and a thesaurus she’d probably be the worst poet since the fifth Bronte sister no one ever talks about – Midge Bronte – a psychotic fleabag who loved unwisely and constantly,  and was so full of worms that she scooted across all the best carpets in London during The Season, always requesting the same waltz because it soothed her “stinky third eye”….  She rhymed easy syllables and was always really shittily sarcastic about including the word ‘Wuthering’ ..which she claimed to have coined in reference to her sister’s bad flatuence.
She didn’t really exist, except in my head.

Biz is coming along or dragging me along, more correctly.  Someday she will trial.  If she ever learns to drive. Right now we don’t see eye-to-eye on the importance.  It’s enough to outrun perfectly, lift nicely and fetch the shit out of those pellet dispensers.  Then it’s time for a swim.

Duke…ahhhhh…Duke.  He’s going to need someone bigger than me.  Or I haven’t ruled out a gorilla suit.  I don’t think there is even a USBCHA ‘guideline’ against it.

I don’t know when my next trial is. Probably when I have a dog who will compete and not merely run.  When I feel competent enough to help her/him.  Fortunately the women in my family tend to live long lives…

How’s it Wagging?

I read an article recently which articulated deeper subtlety in the language of a dog's tail wag.  Namely, a wag with a bias toward the dog's RIGHT indicates acceptance and that it's okay to approach and a wag with a bias to the left of the dog's body is negative and a signal to keep distance.

(Link to dog-wag article)

I mean, color me WTF.   I'm not too many years into understanding fairly obvious signs, like "As soon as you let me off this leash, I'm going to bite a lawyer."  

I read this article a week or so ago and since then I have been attempting to study my dogs' tail wags.  My (brief, limited) findings, in general,

Jai wags constantly, her entire back half meets her entire front half.
Jack wags slow and low, no detectable bias.
Pat swishes his tail a bit then rams you with his head and side of body. The tail is just a brief turning indicator.
Scout wags the very tip of her long flowing tail. It's more like a rattlesnake rattles.
Biz doesn't really wag. She waves. High and arched. Maybe a bit more to the left.  I don't believe this is a Stay Away attitude as much as Biz is always on the ready for action and tail wagging seems like a leisure activity.  

The bias is not easy to discern.  I mean, it's not like they stop wagging at the center point. It's very nuanced.  Tail wagging is not the first social cue I suck at, to be sure, but it's in a realm I normally feel safe – a social environment where everyone eats on the floor without talking.  Where the most important things are smelled or tasted, not discussed.

AND, now I'm feeling a little SHEEPISH about what my dogs might be READING in ME…

I mean, if they can spot a slight tail shift to the left at 500 paces, how have I ever thought I'd been fooling them all this time humming a happy tune while nearly peeing myself on the way to the post? If nothing else, I'm sure they can SMELL my sweat.

It's pretty clear that while I have other issues to work through on the field – timing, depth perception, that some of my favorite words can get me DQ'd….one of the biggest and most difficult obstacles I have is my own EMOTIONAL state and, now, in how many ways I am transferring that to my dog.   Holy Right Brained Shit.

In practice vs trial my dog can be a completely different animal.   Delusions are built upon the kind of work Jai does at home – she has feel, she is fast, she is very intelligent, she loves to work sheep.  She rarely grips and she can work up close and at a great distance.  At a trial, often she looks like I've dropped her off at the 40 yard line of a pro-football game in play and asked her to score the winning touchdown. She stands there wagging and licking her lips, as if to say, "Did you forget that I don't have thumbs? Again? This is big and scary and nothing is shaped right."

I think that we did fairly well at the Trailing of the Sheep SDT this year because I didn't think it was possible to get through the course, so I mentally excused myself from the pressure and just ran my dog without expectation or stress of failure.  The sheep were very difficult, R/Ts and DQs were outnumbering scores, I had a dog drug hangover from the night before.  Jai got through the course, I felt pretty relaxed, and we earned our first Open points by coming in 6th.  

The concept that our emotions affect our dogs, that our verbal communication is the least important, is nothing new.  Anyone who lives with a dog realizes this, to some extent. 

I used to try to occasionally sneak out of the house to go for a run. Alone.  I had SHOES on the FRONT PORCH a day ahead of time, clothes in the car.  I'd tiptoe around, I'd pretend I was picking up, cleaning, meandering closer and closer to the door….and the moment I even looked in a door-ward direction, I'd have every dog in the house standing there, staring and wagging ( I assume to the right), whining and ready to go.  Every time.  Yet if I was really just cleaning the house, even going in and out of the front door to get the mail, take garbage out, etc., no dog ever more than lifted his/her head from a nap.  

That always flummoxed me.  That and how Scout bends spoons with her mind.  Both are examples of how forked we are.

Trying to work as a team with your dog, you really begin to understand the depth of this silent physical language.  Our trainers tell us from day one – your dogs pick up on your energy, good or bad.  What is surprising, and I think increases the complexity 1000 fold, is how much more subtle, physically, they are, and how hard it is for (some of) us to transition to that communication world.  I barely pick up on a vigorous hand gesture from a livid human, let alone a slight tail posture. 

Visualize your perfect run, Lavon has told me before going to the post. Picture every part of it and how it should look.  Watch enough runs so that you know the pressures on the field, you see how the sheep are moving, you understand the places where you will be challenged.  Picture in your mind how you will help your dog in these places.  KNOW your run before you run it.

It sounds so new-agey and contemplative.  I've only ever tried this, sort of, once (and Jai and I did have a decent run), because I am just too jittery and scattered leading up to my run to picture anything in sequence.  I prefer to spend my time in the porta-potty and looking at the running order over and over.  (Plus I think I know WAAAAY more about running a dog than Lavon.  When I was telling him about the tail wag thing, he asked, "Which part is the tail, again?")
(ha ha ha…not really. But he does call their feet 'soft-shell hooves' and when asked how his dogs are bred, usually answers, "By humping…")
(No. He doesn't.)

I have often wished he'd say the secret to a great run was animal sacrifice.  "Kill a chicken on a full moon before each trial."  
I love my chickens. BUT I don't need a great run. I would just like a score more regularly. So…maybe animal inconvenience. I could yell at my chickens.  Make fun of their unfortunate molting,

"I can see your yummy parts!"

….But now I can see why this pre-run ritual of Lavon's makes sense.  It is calming. It forces you to concentrate on the mechanics of what you are about to do so that this is present in your mind when you walk to the post and send your dog.  Your mind and your emotions are more centered on the function and communication, rather than freaking the fuck out and worrying about peeing yourself.

Anyway, this wagging thing really highlights the complexity of the subtlety in communication between human and animals in a way that is both intriguing and OHSHIT-afying.  I'm sure you can get a dog around a course without understanding the intricacies of what they are telling you and what you are telling them, and what you are both telling the sheep, but it won't ever be what it can be, which, for me, is the whole point to having sheep, trialing, and trying to discern a bias in my dog's wag.



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