Monday, January 26, 2009

Camping and Herding: an adventure

So, after our first try at herding, (which was an instinct test with sheep...which the girls seemed to FAIL) I thought Id give it another shot. But this time, there would be one BIG difference: we would be trying ducks rather than sheep. I figured ducks were much smaller and less threatening, and they seemed to move a little quicker, and maybe that would "turn on" their herding instincts, which I hoped were just dormant somewhere deep inside their little sheltie brains. So I decided to call upon the experts in the area, and posted to a couple of local dog boards asking if anyone knew of a herding instructor who had ducks. I quickly got a reply from a few people, (one of which has a VERY talented herding/agility/obedience sheltie) who all sent me information of a herding dog trainer in Maine. She would be holding a clinic in a few weeks. It was a Saturday clinic, and was advertised as a beginners introduction to herding, covering training, stock choice/work, and talk on competition and the life and ways of a shepherd. I thought that this would be PERFECT.
So, I immediately emailed to make sure that there was space for the two girls (which there was) and I sent off my check. I made reservations for a small cottage in Maine, a little ways from where the clinic would be taking place and was planning on heading up on Friday morning. We would explore the area on Friday day, and be well rested for Saturday mornings clinic. I should have stuck to THAT plan...We were having some changes at work that involved everyones schedule, so when I found out that I would be getting out earlier than I had been previously on Thursday afternoons I decided that I would go up to New Hampshire and CAMP on Thursday afternoon, stay in NH for most of the day Friday and then make the drive over to Maine late on Friday afternoon. So, I made reservations at a campground (that I had never been to before) for Thursday night.
I packed the car on Wednesday (except for the cooler) that way I could leave pretty early on Thursday afternoon after work. So that worked out pretty well. I just had to grab a few other things, the dogs, and hit the grocery store for some food. We were on the road, and ready to have our first camping adventure of the year. And boy, it WAS an adventure.
I got to the campground a little later than planned, but that wasnt a big deal. The problem that I encountered first, was that when I checked in, they explained (while pointing to the camp map) that "here is the area for parking, and there should be a WAGON here to load to bring to the campsite." WHAT?!?! Apparently I picked a site that was 300 yards into the woods, and would not have easy access to my car. I would have to walk back and forth through the woods if I needed anything. So, I pulled my car to the parking area, and parked. I found the wagon (which was about 150 lbs. itself!) and started loading it up. Oh, I forgot to mention: when I was being told the campground rules I had been told that as they are in bear country, it was very advisable not to EAT at the site itself. So now, I figured that after I loaded the wagon, and set everything up at the site, I would have to go back to the car to feed the girls, and to eat my own dinner. So heres how it went down:
I loaded the wagon with everything I would need at the site...pretty much almost everything in the car: tent, mattress, sleeping bag, dogs beds, lantern, flashlight etc. It was very hot and muggy, even here in Crawford notch, so loading it wasnt fun. Then I had both dogs on lead, and proceeded to drag the wagon along the very bumpy, windy dirt path into the woods. I set up the tent (which was a challenge, as it was new and I wasnt familiar with it as I was with my old tent) and then by that time, it was pretty dark. And then I ran into our second issue: it was VERY buggy. Where I usually stay (in Lincoln, on the OTHER side of the mountains) although the sites were also along a river, they were not wooded so bugs werent an issue. I was already being eaten alive, and it was only dusk. So then and there I decided "no fire tonight". I dragged the wagon BACK through the woods (so the next unlucky SOB's could drag it through the woods loaded with their stuff) and fed the dogs and ate dinner in my car...still being attacked by rabid, blood thirsty mosquitos. I was hot, and pissed off. The bathroom on the map was at the OTHER end of the path that my campsite was on, so after dinner we walked by our site to find the path that was on the map. It wasnt really a path at all. It was a small, I dunno, trail of strategically placed boulders that winded down the bank of a small stream, across a LOG and then up the opposite bank. I used the sink to wash the girls dishes, and then went back to the site, praying that I would not have to use the bathroom in the middle of the night. The good thing about the site, was that as it was so close to the rushing river, I couldnt hear ANYTHING over the sound of the water, including my neighbors who had small kids. And no, thankfully I didnt have to go back to the bathroom.
The next morning was hot and muggy AGAIN so I very quickly packed everything up, loaded the wagon, and loaded the car back up. I took a shower and then very impatiently left the campground. Through the day, the girls and I meandered our way to a few of our favorite places: on the Conway Scenic railroad, swimming off of Bear Notch Road, and to the "doggy store" for some icecream. Then we started to make our way across the border to Maine. I have never really been through Maine properly, and although I had good directions, I bought a map to feel a little more confident. It took us about 3 hours to make it across Maine (which is beautiful, hilly farm country) to our cottage on the coast. This was MUCH nicer and more comfortable, and here is where I proceeded to kick myself for coming up early and having a miserable time camping. I grabbed something to eat, fed the dogs, watched a little tv and went to sleep with the cool Maine coast salty air breezing through the windows of the cottage.
The next morning was the start of the big day. I showered, packed up, and fed the dogs. It was much cooler here than it was the previous day in NH, so I put on some pants, my new blue muck boots, and (of course) a sheltie sweatshirt. I played a little frisbee with the girls to burn off some of thier steam, and then packed them up too. The womans house was a bit hard to find, so we missed the street that it was off of. Finally we made it (although a little late) and I entered her house and found myself being welcomed in to the small group who were there for the same reasons I was; all wondering if our dogs would blow us away with their herding skills, or leave us wondering if decades of breeding for asthetics over the ability to work had robbed our dogs of thier special abilities.
We ended the introductory meeting, and all went to get out dogs. I grabbed my chair, some water, and the girls, and we trucked up the hill to the pen. This part of the farm was beautiful. Instead of feeling like being in the middle of the woods (which was where the house was) we now were at what felt like the top of the mountain, cleared and penned. Large chunks of rock were jutting up through the grassy penned pasture. The instructure seperated the sheep, and had all of us come into the larger pen, so we could be along the fence of the smaller, where the dogs would be introduced to the sheep. There was a border collie that immediately turned on, and an aussie did as well. There was a canaan dog who had a unique style (the instructor was delighted, as she never had the ability to work a canaan dog before) and then my girls.
Mine were the only two to work ducks. We did them seperately, in between the dogs who were tested on sheep. Heidi went first. She was more interested in the ducks than she was the sheep, but looked a little afraid of them. The instructor said that she did have some instinct, and with some work, she would turn on. She was exibiting the correct pressure needed to move the ducks, but not scare them into scattering, and was always behing the center duck, therefore balancing the "herd". But it was not immediate, and she did not care to be lead around on leash after the ducks, not at her own pace, but at the instuctors. Still having her shoulder injury, and having her gait suffer because of it, shes a little slower than she would normally be. So although she did well, I did not feel that I had a budding working sheepdog inside of her. Which, althgouh I have been bitten by the herding bug, doesnt really bother me. Heidi is so good at so amny other things, and is such a special dog anyways, Im just happy that she tried it.
Next was Shelbys turn. Shelby was much the same, although with her, I stayed out side of the pen with my back to her (as shes very bonded with me, and wouldnt focus on the ducks if I was in there). She did just about the same as Heidi: showing a little pressure, and the desire to balance the stock, but she was nervous and a little afraid of the ducks. Again, I was told that she could also be turned on to the stock with some practice, but also, I didnt feel like I had my "border collie in sheltie clothes." The biggest thing that I wasnt really happy with was the way that my girls were handled with the ducks. They werent very comfortable with them, and a little nervous. But where I would have used a clicker and some treats to encourage them to go near the stock, she used the all too common "Ceaser Millan"-like technique of flooding: grabbing a duck and throwing it in the air at them, putting a duck in their face, holding the duck and dog at the same just didnt work, and made ME a little uncomfortable. I knew my girls were not in any danger of course (they were ducks after all) but I also knew that they werent going to get any better with their confidence around the ducks when they were being shoved in their faces. And, sure enough, their second time in the pen with them, the were shutting down, eager to get off their lead, away from this strange woman who was dragging them around after these scary feathered, quacking things.
So, besides the training techniques, all in all, I was very glad that I went to the clinic. I learned a lot about herding and stock especially. The handlers did an exercise where WE had to herd the ducks through a set of cones, and I really enjoyed that. I felt a stong attraction to the ducks, and felt like I could easily manage having a few of those around my yard. There were easy to read, and easy to handle. The day could not have been better: cool, slightly breezy, cloudy. Not too hot, no rain, not too much sun. The girls were exhausted and I knew wouldnt mind sleeping on our long drive home. Im still very interested in doing herding in the future, and now I think have the tools to get my next puppy started off on the right paw when it comes to introducing her to stock.
As for the girls, well, they did enjoy their nap on the ride home. As I write this, theyre where they usually are, in the hallway, sleeping, all the while waiting for me to ask them if they want to do something: eat? play? go for a ride? They are such talented, special dogs, that, sure, although it would have been great to have them both become the next sheltie herding champions, I of course love them no less. We will jut stick to the things that I know that they love: playing ball. Camping and hiking. Agility. And of course, snuggling. I do it all, of course, for them. We'll keep trying new things, trying to find new activities that they'll enjoy. But even if they never set foot in a ring again, even if theyre only ever just "pets" I know that theyre more than that. Theyre my furry children. And you always support your kids. You are ALWAYS proud of them. You ALWAYS love them. No matter what.

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