Foundation Work and the Kess Challenge

People (and dogs and other animals) are put into your life for a reason.

I bought Kessie from her breeder based on pedigree alone.  I was convinced that a dog with a stellar pedigree would be an amazing stock dog.  That is, of course, true to some extent, but it is also not true.  There are lots of dogs with stellar pedigrees who are lousy on stock and just as many dogs with unknown pedigrees who are absolutely amazing.  I firmly believe that a big part of the success of a dog in any venue has a lot to do with the relationship between the dog and the handler.

For example, I bought Gel as an agility and obedience dog.  He was sold to me by a very competent trainer and stock dog handler as an agility prospect because she didn’t believe he’d make a good stock dog.  In her hands, he likely wouldn’t have, but in my hands, he’s a great stock dog.  We have a very close relationship that is ever growing and changing.  He’s also a good agility dog.  Obedience, well, I just don’t have the patience for that and I do think that obedience training is detrimental to stock work.  I do not think agility training is.

But Kessie was bought for stock work and I was overly excited about getting her, expecting miracles, started her way too soon, put too much pressure on her and she didn’t take it well.  I almost sold her to a handler in Nevada.  I would have recouped all the money I had into her and then some, but I was afraid that the handler who wanted Kessie ultimately wouldn’t be happy with her and I didn’t want Kessie to become one of those Border Collies who is sold on down the road again and again and again.  I owed her more than that.  So I traded with Wally.  I got four young goats and he got Kessie.  I never regretted that decision.

Wally loves that dog.  Except for regular farm chores (and that is a recent need) Wally had no need for a stock dog and wasn’t interested in training one for stock work.  So, for something to do with Kessie, he started to do fly ball.  It is no secret that I despise fly ball, but if that’s what you or anyone else wants to do with a dog, then by all means do it.  I personally hate it and I think it makes some dogs flaming lunatics.  I saw a difference in Kessie’s demeanor when Wally started to do fly ball with her.  She was always a very excitable dog and fly ball fed that.  Early on, Kessie was a fly ball star, but Kessie started to do fly ball Kessie’s way and she had to be pulled from competition.

All along I felt that I didn’t give Kessie a chance, was too hard on her and when the opportunity came up for me to take on Cian (Kessie’s brother) I jumped at the chance.  It has been a hard road and I’ve considered giving up on him many times, but he’s still here and I am committed to doing what I can with him.  Who knows, he may surprise me one day.  He has a lot of Kessie’s characteristics, but he’s a much harder dog than Kessie.  One of the complaints I had about Kessie was that when corrected, she held grudges.  That’s tough to work through.  One thing that I’ve learned since then is that it’s better to keep the dog in the position of being right so that you don’t have to use corrections.  That’s quite easy to do with agility training, quite a bit harder to do in stock work.  The more I learn about training stock dogs, however, the more I realize that it is quite possible to keep a dog in a right place so you don’t have to use corrections which is imperative to build confidence and relationships.

Many people are guilty of starting a dog on stock too young.  For all the talk I did about it, I started Fern too young and put too much pressure on her.  Luckily, I didn’t cause any harm and she’s working just fine, but I’m extremely careful about what I do with her so that I don’t cause any harm.  Many people would have Fern up and ready to run trials at her age, but I’m not worried about it.  Ha!  Having limited finances has put a serious damper on my ability to do trials so I am not at all driven to push her.

Both Cian and Kessie are at good ages (they turned two in September) to start to do serious stock work.  There is no reason to do a lot with Fern who won’t be two until August.  Of course, there’s always Gel to work with as well.

Due to personal reasons, Kessie is now here with me and I have free rein to train her for whatever I want, be it agility or stock work or both.  While I might be able to do something agility-related with Cian, I know what battles to pick and that is one that I might not have a chance in Hell of winning.  Kessie, on the other hand, was brought up by me until she was close to six months old and she had a lot of the puppy foundation training put on her.  She knows what a clicker is and I did a lot of shaping work with her.  She’d likely make a nice agility dog.

The problem is, training an agility dog is so damned much work.  It takes a lot (A LOT) of time and I don’t know that I can get myself in that mindset.  However, agility foundation work would do wonders for Kessie (and Fern’s) confidence and their (more so Kessie) relationship with me.

My good friend Helene who lives in Canada has a half sister to Kessie and Cian.  She’s done amazing things with that dog, a dog that I told her on numerous occasions that she should send back to her breeder, but Helene has been persistent and her dog has come a long, long way.  She’s still screwy (as are Cian and Kessie) but she’s much closer to a normal dog thanks to Helene’s training and patience.  Helene is much more of a positive trainer than I am.  I try to be positive, but I’m quite impatient and lean towards compulsive training which isn’t a good thing.

I had been thinking about this before I read Helene’s Blog entry today on puppies and pressure (we’ve discussed this topic many, many times) and then read the link to Susan Garrett’s entry on the three crucial keys to agility greatness.  I love her reference to “sexy stuff.”  She doesn’t know sexy stuff until she sees a Border Collie that she trained outrun 300 yards and fetch sheep to her.  Now that’s sexy and that’s where there’s often way too much pressure put on young Border Collies.  They are pushed out too fast, too soon and things fall apart.  I’m terribly guilty of that myself.  Nothing, I mean nothing, is more beautiful than watching a Border Collie lay down a perfect outrun.  All of my dogs are beautiful, natural out runners, it’s bred into them, but while the young ones can outrun 200-300 yards, they don’t have the confidence to finish the task.  Out running is one thing, lifting and fetching is another.

Helene mentioned in another entry that she was re-reading Susan Garrett’s book Shaping Success for inspiration.  This is a book that I’ve read and re-read myself many, many times, but I haven’t been so good about following through with the foundation training detailed in that book.  Susan Garrett is a brilliant, but somewhat obsessive trainer.  She’s been extremely instrumental in the agility community for designing training programs that break down complex behaviors, like weave pole training (using her 2 x 2 weave pole method), into small enough increments so that the dog can learn this complex behavior in a simple, yet solid way.  Who would have thought of making a game out of the basic behavior of going in and out of a crate?  Susan Garrett did and published a DVD on these games which is selling very, very well.  I don’t know a lot about Crate Games but I understand from those who have seen the DVD that it’s a wonderful method to build both drive and control.

At this time, Helene is fostering a young Border Collie that she’s named Kestral (“Kess”) so we now both have a Kess in our lives.  How weird is that?  Helene is starting foundation training with Kess and plans to do stock work with her when they unfreeze up there in Canada (which I believe happens sometime in June or July).  I just wrote Helene and issued a Kess Challenge.  How about if each of us work our individual Kess dogs in foundation work, such as the things detailed in Shaping Success and compare notes.  While I am not terribly busy these days, I tend to create a lot of work for myself.  Some of it necessary and good, some of it worthless.  This interferes with my training time and I know all of my dogs would benefit from daily, structured training, even if it is not stock work.  It doesn’t take more than a few minutes a day to get training sessions in for each dog and foundation training really burns out their brains.  I am good about getting daily physical exercise in (if I didn’t it would be hard to live with them), but I’ve been guilty, especially lately, about letting the dogs have too much time on their own.  Border Collies, especially four of them together, left on their own for too much time get into way, way, way too much trouble.  There are small holes being dug in the front yard (Kessie’s work, but she’ll tell you that she’s digging them so the cats can wallow in them [which they do]), crap strewn all over the yard (they are all guilty of that), fence fighting with the neighbor’s dogs, barking, etc.  Just this morning I called them in after writing my earlier post and found that Fern had been down in the stream that feeds the pond and was covered in mud.  Lovely.

Anyway, I’m sure Helene will accept my challenge and will do a much better job at it than I will, but she’s a much better trainer than me.  She’s got a lot of years on me in the dog training department, but I’m a quick learner.  My instructor in Salisbury is gearing up for more agility classes and just added a Monday morning class that I plan to attend with Gel.  She’s also going to be doing a 2 x 2 weave pole workshop in the next month or so and I plan to take that with both Fern and Kessie.  Fern would just burn an agility field up if I could get my ass in gear and train her.

Does this mean I’m giving up on stock work?  No, it just means I’m broadening out the dogs’ and my horizon.  You cannot do enough with these dogs.  They are like sponges.  The more you do with them, the better they are and ultimately, the better I will be.  Also, in the grand scheme of things, if I’m ever going to trial again, I enjoy agility trials a whole Hell of a lot more than USBCHA (herding) trials.

Until later …