A Moment of Sheepishness During Her Herding Test

It had been a while since Rain got exposed to something 100% new, so I scheduled her for a time slot to test her herding instincts. We would be heading to Brigand’s Hideout, a small farm in Clark County, WA, that regularly hosts herding lessons, dog shows, and more. Once upon a time Rain’s mom Skye was even in a dog show at Brigand’s Hideout!

Our readers probably know that Australian shepherds were bred to be herding dogs. Despite the “Australian” moniker they were bred in the United States, originally for herding sheep but they eventually became more closely associated with cattle. Border collies have historically been associated with sheep herding in both the United Kingdom and United States.

I planned to leave about an hour before our appointment but wanted to finish up a project. Then Murphy’s Law got payback, as Rain could tell I was about to ask her to take a car ride and didn’t want anything to do with it. She didn’t even want to leave the house! I coaxed her outside onto our front porch. In the interest of time I had to pick her up and put her in the car again as I had done for agility class this week. Once we were on the road, a bit later than hoped, Google estimated a 48 minute transit time, including a couple spots of traffic.

As soon as the car stopped during arrival, Rain started barking. She didn’t want to be in the car, and she was in a completely new environment. At first I brought her out of the car, thinking that she’d hush up once she got to sniffing the environs. When that didn’t happen I put her back in the car so I could fill out the required release form before we got down to business.

Dave Viklund told me where to bring Rain when the release form was filled out, and she managed to bark nearly the entire way. Dressed in a black full-body rainsuit with the hood up, Dave looked suspicious to Rain and she barked at him too. He asked me to tell him about us but it was difficult to hold a conversation over Rain’s barking. It was one of those moments when it felt like we had taken two steps forward and then one and a half steps (or more) back. Hoo boy, what had I gotten us into?

Dave ushered a few sheep into a small, circular pen, and escorted Rain and me past the gate. I thought I had dressed for the weather, but even with straw laid on the ground the mud was thick and slippery.

Situating ourselves, Rain started directing her barks at the sheep, nearby but out of her range. Dave instructed me to take Rain off leash to see what she’d do. I unclipped the leash from her harness…and Rain very boldly stepped behind my legs!

“Do you know why she did that?” Dave asked. “She’s afraid of the sheep and wants me to go first!” I said. Ha ha, Rain. Good one.

I took a step forward and that’s all we needed. Rain trotted out from behind me and started circling the pen. My job was to hold a herding stick with a rattle (like this one, only with a green paddle). It told the sheep I was in charge, as they started closing in on me, and I was to use it to direct Rain. I learned that ideally, Rain was to remain on one side of the sheep and I was to remain on the other. When she came over to my side, I stretched the paddle out to keep her back on her side.

Rain, unsurprisingly, did great—she seemed to be a natural at trotting around and herding the sheep. At one point when one of the three sheep strayed from the group I noticed that Rain’s attention moved solely to it, and it was quickly back with its brethren right next to me. Rain was also perfectly quiet the entire time she was loose inside the pen with the sheep. Her brain was thinking so her mouth wasn’t moving.

Soon there was a new issue: the sheep were getting really up close and personal with me! I thought I had dressed for the weather, but I hadn’t anticipated three muddy sheep, whose backs were as tall as my waist, body slamming against my front and back! Frankly I hadn’t known what involvement I would have in this “herding instinct test,” but I certainly didn’t wager that I’d be surrounded by sheep! They were a lot bigger than I had imagined. Crowded around me, I found it difficult to move the herding paddle quickly enough to redirect Rain.

Once I think I was starting to get the hang of the exercise, we were done. I put the leash back on Rain’s harness and Dave put the sheep back where they came from. Rain started barking again, and Dave showed me his preferred method of correcting for it. Essentially it involved annoying the dog while they barked by jiggling their harness/collar with the leash. Once Rain stopped barking, even for a moment, the “reward” was cessation of the jiggling. It seemed to work better for Dave than it did for me, but I’m always happy to have new ideas in the toolbox.

We chatted for a few minutes after our test and Dave said Rain did better than he thought she would. If we were to continue visiting, his next step would be to help me be more comfortable with the sheep. 😀 His next lesson had arrived and he moved along with his day, allowing Rain and I to walk around the grounds a little bit so Rain could sniff and and I get some photos before we set out on the trek back home.

It was all such a whirlwind—particularly due to Rain’s barking—that it took me a few days to wrap my head around everything that had happened. Now that I have though, I’m not sure how to proceed. Rain seems to be a natural at herding, it seems to be a good challenge for her, but I still have some reservations. For one thing each one-way trip was longer than our actual time spent working! Can we afford to pay for herding plus agility classes? Would it be worth our time?

In the meantime Rain will just have to continue herding Roy and me around our very modest house!

Go On: Weekly Agility Report

Spring is coming to the Pacific northwest! Unfortunately that means a few amazing, gorgeous, sunny days are sprinkled in with a lot of gross, rainy, muddy days. As time carries on toward July, the ratio starts favoring the sunny days.

Naturally then, agility this week was on the gross, rainy, muddy day right AFTER the amazing, gorgeous, sunny day this week. 😉

Rain didn’t want to get in the car to go to class. She had come so far, and she leaped right in the car last week! But on this day, she seemed to be in a mood and wouldn’t even get near the back of the car. I ended up picking her up and loading her in—not my favorite way to get the job done.

We were a little late heading out, and again got to the arena with not a lot of time to spare. We played ball in the pens out back, and it didn’t take long for Rain to make her St. Patrick’s Day bandana look a little more Erin go Mud than anything else.

Rain inherited a set of holiday bandanas that had been made for Uncle Atticus. The bandanas that fit him best have been a bit too big for her—this one was just right for her, so it must have been a bit too small for him!

Molly started teaching us “go on” in class this week. Essentially this means “do that stuff without me running next to you,” so we worked individually using a line of jumps down one side of the arena. Once the dog would go over one jump without us running alongside, we slowly backed up and built on it until the dog could “go on” for four jumps without us.

While we waited for Rudy the papillon, I thought I might try and get some photos of our classmates. Poppy sat for a posed photo, but came to see me as soon as I was at her level. Immediately thereafter, it was Rain’s turn. So here’s Poppy saying howdy!

Rain took to learning “go on” fairly well once we got a reward going that she was really into. After all of us had several minutes of individual instruction for “go on,” we completed class with a short course that ended with that line of jumps. It was time to see how much they had retained their new skill! (Rain got three of the four “go ons” without error!)

After class I did a couple of dog walks with Rain, and Molly lowered the A-frame a bit at my request so Rain could practice a few runs at that too. I was trying to give Rain as much physical and mental stimulation as possible before we needed to head home, and reinforce things she had learned but didn’t get to practice at home.

When Poppy and Cedar were about to leave, Rain suddenly decided to bark and lunge at them again! She had been almost totally fine with both of them since our first class together. Between that and Rain’s reluctance to get in the car, I chalked it up to Rain being “in a mood.”

At times like this, I feel a little like an exasperated Judge Judy:

As it would happen, I’d have more Judge Judy moments over the weekend. But more about that on Thursday.

Rain Runs Her First Course: Weekly Agility Report

There couldn’t have been a more beautiful afternoon to leave work early and head to the countryside with one’s pup for agility class this week.

After a few minutes of playing fetch at the park, Rain and I headed to agility. Cedar and Poppy were in the pens out back with their human, so we decided to have the dogs meet each other. Rain got barky at first, but was soon super cool with them. She didn’t bark at either of them once during class.

When we headed to the arena though, my puppy sense started tingling. Sure enough, there was a little red merle Aussie puppy! Just as ginger, fuzzy, and cute as Rain’s Uncle Atticus was, once upon a time. Molly was in the process of moving the puppy, named Flute, so she wouldn’t be a distraction to our class. Casually, I let Molly know that if she couldn’t find the puppy later, hey, don’t worry about it! (And don’t look in my car!)

As it turns out, Flute was ten weeks old and Molly was just puppysitting for the day. Flute’s human is a veterinarian who had an equine shot clinic she was doing all day. Hence, she needed an able person to mind her charge for the day.

At the start of class, Molly invited us to walk a course she had set up.

I looked at Rudy the Papillon’s owner, who was the closest person to me. “How do I do that?” I asked.

Once Molly realized we had never done a course before, the group gave me pointers about what one does in walking a course. I looked for the cones with numbers on them to determine the order of obstacles, internally strategizing how I’d send Rain through it.

Did Rain do great? Of course! Did she do it perfectly the first time through? Of course not. Molly had given us a weave pole channel as an alternate to the dog walk, and we ended up needing to remind her about weave pole channels. THEN she did pretty well! Considering she is used to being given a treat after every task she performs, I was particularly proud that she went through this whole course so well the first time.

After we all made it through the course, Molly set up a square made of jumps. The others had played this game before but Rain and I had not. It took me a couple of turns to fully understand it, but during our second turn we were doing pretty well!

Then it was time for class to be over, and Molly said we’d lower the dog walk before next week so Rain and I could utilize it again. That sparked my memory—I don’t think I ever got the chance to tell Molly why I think Rain and I had the dog walk tumble in December. I explained to her that I think I said “yes!” as Rain was on the high part of the dog walk (which meant “you get a cookie”) so she jumped off to get her treat instead of continuing the task.

Molly thought it was an astute observation, and explained to the other two that when using positive reinforcement, the marker word can inadvertently become a release word. Like in the case of Rain jumping off the dog walk from five feet up!

Even though class was over, Molly and I went to the dog walk to test Rain out briefly. I made sure to not say her marker word when she was on the obstacle, and she didn’t leap off the side like she did in December! A few runs in and we were doing the dog walk faster with no problems.

There’s a saying about puppies: when they’re quiet, they’re almost certainly getting into trouble. People say the same thing about Aussies…

Flute the puppy was in one of the horse stables outside the arena, and I wanted to get a photo of her before leaving. Since there were no other dogs in the arena I let Rain stay in there unsupervised. As Molly came out of the stable, she gasped and said that she had seen a levitating dog, but it was just Rain who had gotten back on the top of the dog walk again…presumably to keep tabs on where I was and what I was doing! After a few minutes of fawning over Flute, I headed back to gather my things and discovered Rain’s head was buried in a Powell’s bag…which belongs to Cedar and Poppy’s human! Always opportunistic, Rain had smelled some cookies and helped herself while everyone was distracted.

We closed out our beautiful afternoon in the country by playing ball in the pens out back for nearly a half hour! The air was warm, the sun was starting a pinkish descent toward the western horizon, and the ground was soft but not slippery with mud. We had a great time enjoying the day. Spring is on its way, and Rain and I both are more than ready for more weather like this!

Rain Gets Momentarily Caught in a Vortex

Rain got a bath this past weekend. She hadn’t had one since December and her enjoyment of winter mud had made her coat dusty and oily. When we visited the swimming pool, I think it was noticeably more murky when we left than when we arrived!

Rain has also been starting to blow her winter coat, which on a dog with such a thick undercoat means there’s hair on everything in the house. A couple of weeks ago I used her special brush to start trying to weed out loose hairs, and she has had a few decent brushing sessions since. Each session yields 5-10 brushfuls of hair in what seems like just a few minutes. Rain felt noticeably softer after each time she got brushed.

Still though, brushes don’t get out all the oil and mud so it was past time for a bath. And the funniest thing happened shortly after she hopped out of the tub…she got caught in a vortex! But just for a few seconds at a time.

Once the few seconds were over, she returned to her happy self, bouncing out to the living room to rub wildly all over the furniture. Once dry she was so soft, so much more enjoyable to pet, and smelled like raspberries.

That is until the next day, when it would be time again to head out for our morning walk, with Rain kicking up all sorts of mud on her feet and underbelly, and starting the process once again.

It’s nice while it lasts though!

The Clackamatackys Strike Again: Weekly Agility Report

The days have been staying light later, so this week I decided to try and visit our old park. You may recall that in November we’d arrive to find the park pitch black and due to our region’s rainy season, pretty marshy in low spots.

Upon arrival I noticed the undeveloped parking lot had orange construction fencing up around it. Signs attached the posts warned park users to not drive into the field beyond the parking lot, complete with a photo of a white SUV that had presumably gotten stuck in the mud.

Rain was not amused to hear of the shenanigans that had taken place. Nor was I.

Of course part of the marshiest spots in this field were right next to the parking area, so we I needed to be careful stepping around the oily mud in order to reach the higher ground beyond. (Who am I kidding? Rain doesn’t care if she’s up to her elbows—I was the one doing my best to avoid getting suctioned into the areas of thick, sticky mud.)

The sheen of motor oil inside a tire track.

Rain loved being back where she could run like a locomotive and play ball for an extended period. As we did that, I pondered incidents like the four-wheeling incident and how many times the actions of one or two can severely mar the enjoyment of the larger group. I cursed the Clackamatackys under my breath as well as their actions that have undermined the community that has been working for years to take care of this modest city park.

We live in Clackamas County, which is a very large county in Oregon that has urban, suburban, and rural components. Whenever I see shenanigans like this I blame it on the Clackamatackys, my phrase for people who appear to be uneducated, unobservant, and/or unwilling to think beyond their own fleeting desires. On July 4th, they set off illegal fireworks in our urban neighborhood, not thinking about the grass fires they may cause or the animals they may be terrorizing. When it snows, they head to the nearest park with their ATV, not considering the damage they may be making that will last weeks beyond their thrill ride. It seems that people will manage to do anything you don’t make them physically incapable of doing.

Before I got too lost in my thoughts, my master was barking at me. She wanted me to throw her ball, dang it!

Agility class was more or less fine, although Rain was a bit barky. (Try not to be shocked.) When it was our turn to work on some tunnel moves, Rain decided to just bark at me incessantly rather than do her part. We eventually got her brain back, but it was an uncomfortable few minutes.

Shortly after our tunnel tribulations I remembered a special treat I bought specifically to bring to class this week.

Once the string cheese was open Rain gained a laser focus that held through the rest of class. When we were waiting for others to work with Molly, Rain and I worked on the tire and then I set up a sequence for her involving both the tire and a jump.

This week we were back with our prior class due to a scheduling issue, but moving forward we’re going to try and go to the other class we tried last week. It’s still unclear whether this will be doable long-term, but we’ll try our best!

Making a Splash

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It had been a couple of months since Rain went swimming so I booked a slot on a recent Sunday afternoon. This was to be our first unsupervised swim! Steven came with us, both to enjoy having fun with Rain but also to take advantage of the hot tub available right next to the doggy pool.

Our attendant helped us suit her up with the doggy PDF at my request—there was so much going on during our prior sessions that I totally forgot to ask about the detail of getting Rain suited up to swim.

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Once everyone was ready it wasn’t that hard to get Rain in the pool. She doesn’t seem to need a bully stick anymore but she does enjoy swimming out to fetch a tennis ball. She doesn’t seem to go for the larger pool toys they had available like the Elvis-esque rubber chicken or the floating throw toys geared toward retrievers.

One thing I noticed during this visit is that Rain doesn’t get noisy when she’s in the pool. She doesn’t bark, whine, or otherwise sing us the song of her people. She just swims out to fetch the ball and bring it back to the platform that seems to be her comforable home base.

At a certain point Rain got out of the pool and walked away from the shallow platform with the ramp. I threw the ball into another part of the pool in order to see if she would jump in after it. She didn’t jump in (I’m okay with that), but she also didn’t come back around to the platform/ramp to swim out to get it either.

I had booked a 45 minute swim, but around 30 minutes in it seemed that she was more or less done with being in the water. She shook off multiple times and seemed more reluctant to get back in, although we got her to swim-fetch the ball a few more times. At a certain point we just figured we’d hang out in the hot tub until it was time to start getting ready to go. Rain had no problem hanging out next to us, licking our faces while they were easily accessible to her standing on the pool deck.

It wasn’t until the end of our visit that I realized I hadn’t taken any new photos of her pool adventures. Now we have another reason to go back for another visit!