a simple dirt road lesson

Almost ten years ago, every Friday for an entire summer and fall, Ocean and I would get in the car at 4am, drive about 100 miles to a friends farm, tend to and work sheep, do some farm chores, and then come home. I was so addicted and loved every minute of that journey and adventure.

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Spore never said we couldn’t have sheep of our own, but he also never made a move to help it happen either. So this was as close as we were going to come to living on a farm with sheep! So I made the best of it.

I reached a point were I wanted to learn more, so I started to ask around about herding clinicians and/or stock dog handlers that would be willing to take me on, a ‘sheepless’ border collie owner!

And then there I was, a full days drive, maybe a bit more. Ocean and I were standing on the outside of a round pen and talking ‘sheep’ with a couple of other handlers. It was my first big clinic, and I was so excited to learn more. Ocean already had an expert grasp of her job, now it was my turn to learn so I could be a partner in our new herding hobby!

Ocean was a soft and cautious dog, spooky even, in our daily lives. Her safety was in her work that I proposed to her, and that was the only place she felt safe. But on sheep, I saw a side of her that was elegant, breathtaking, and unbelievable. She questioned nothing, she put herself out there, and it was like magic to my novice eyes. She had some tendencies to hold sheep and not let them move sometimes, kind of a ‘sheep police’, and she didn’t like picking them up off of a fence line, but hey, we had only been at it for six months at this point, and she was 15 months old. I considered her freaking brilliant!

I paid, I hooked up our pop up camper, stocked it with food, coffee and water, lots of warm clothes, and away we went.

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It felt so tribal to me. People, border collies, and campers, from all over, gathering in a field that was miles and miles away from anything. We didn’t know each other but we had a collective purpose. To learn more about herding, sheep, our dogs, and build our skills. My only fear at the time was that I knew how to pull our camper, but I couldn’t back up worth beans. Luckily the fields went on for miles so I never had to put anything into reverse the whole weekend. Literally that was my only fear at the time.

We started with a long talk, some stock handling stuff for safety, and our dogs job. We went into a round pen, one team at a time. You couldn’t wipe the smile off my face, we were going to learn! I thought it went pretty well, I was happy with Ocean, the sheep, and OK with my end, some minor mistakes, but nothing major.

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After this first round, we were asked to put our dogs away. For the whole rest of the day, seven more hours, we walked up and down a dirt road, it was long, but still. We practiced switching emotions, leaving emotional spaces, for real not just faking it, and being able to see what was around us, but stay balanced and even. Our body language had to change with each emotional shift, for real, feeling it, not faking it.

We were asked to get really angry, not to difficult in that moment really, and then let it go, for real, feeling the release. We were asked to get really happy but to contain it inside, then let it go, we were asked to walk with balance on the inside and breathe. Walk tall with shoulders squared off, walk soft with a slumped back. Walk fast. Walk slow. Jump to the side but keep moving forward. What…the…hell…?

My enthusiasm for the weekend started to take a giant nose dive. Why am I out here walking while my dog is in the camper, and the sheep are getting fat in the fields?

I was here to learn about stock handling and to get a better idea of my job with my dog. I did not sign up for, well, this!

The next morning we all got our dogs out, there weren’t as many smiles, and for sure some trepidation when we approached the morning meeting area. Coffee went around, and I for one, and I think a couple of others, were hiding behind the steaming cup secretly hoping for ‘more sheep time’. And we heard, “Good Morning, I see you haven’t learned to let go of emotional spaces yet. Don’t worry it takes time, and practice, but it will make you better as a stock handler, or really what ever you choose to do. But you have to be aware of it, and practice. Let’s go move some sheep”

We got a bit of time on the sheep that morning, but we were more observers while the clinician handled our dogs. I was a bit crushed. Then we hit the dirt road again. “you need to practice, work through your mistakes without your dog, and practice some more. If you can’t be honest about how you feel, and then let go of it, how can your dog trust you. Why are you all holding on to anger right now, lets work.”  All…day…long…again…seriously!

It took years, yes years, to realize this valuable lesson. Maybe one of the most important life lessons I have had in or out of the dog world. It stuck with me, and I ended up thinking about it a lot, pretty much everyday, which I think was the whole point.

A handler has to know more about themselves, how to achieve emotional balance, and work efficiently, effectively, and with as little hoo hah as possible. Once again, the lesson was not about ‘teaching our dogs’, but about handler handling. It’s a tough lesson, so often over looked (almost always), and so incredibly important.

Sometimes what we really want to do with our dogs should not be our starting point at all, in fact we need to start some place else, a simple place, maybe down a dirt road. Taking care of who we are as a handler, improving those skills, makes a world of difference that lasts our life time, not just one activity.

Simple can be a super hard pill to swallow, so often it’s the explosive and dynamic activity that ignites us, feeds us, but there are no skills to be learned there, it’s more of a hold on for the ride type of thing. Simplicity is where we actually learn.

If at any moment you think training is about the dog, you need to stop what you are doing, take a deep breath, and tell yourself (kick yourself if you need to), “I need to do better and learn more”. It isn’t about the dog, it is about the handler, always. Finding a long dirt road wouldn’t hurt either.

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Nancy

15 thoughts on “a simple dirt road lesson

  1. I cannot tell you how amazing the timing of this post is. I posted it on FB as required reading for all at the agility trial this past weekend. We (including me) needed a lot more practice on the managing OUR emotions and understanding too how much our dogs pick up on them. Lots of bad juju there this weekend.

    1. I look forward to a shake down of your weekend … Being aware of how we are feeling, and why, and then being able to move on as the environment requires is a big skill, and I think one worth working on for sure.

  2. You have answered the question I have had for so many years when it came to me and the dogs I loved. I know what I have with JT my BC is special and it is because of all you just stated. I will never have to walk a dirt road alone she will always be beside me trusting me with her life. I was always told to take her to be judge in the ring and I worried she would TURN ON to it and never want to be a dog that would just chill with Mom. I probably did her a great injustice as she is amazing at herding but I do not have a farm either 😦

    1. border collies know how to work stock and then be at home, they can do both. If you have access I would give it a go. You will see a side to JT you wouldn’t see other wise, it;s pretty awesome!

  3. I have only owned a dog for just shy of two months and this is possibly the aspect of “dog owning” that I work on more than anything else. I could write a short novel of all the times I have asked myself “how are you feeling? how is that going to affect my dog? what am I going to do about it?” I have made mistakes and my dog has been sure to let me know that I have, but he has also been sure not to hold it against me. For example, if I get a little too forceful telling him to come because I’m upset or frustrated he gives me the look and continues to do as he pleases, but he always gives me time to reassess, take a step backward, take a deep breath to realize why I was a bit forceful and to change, only then will he respond. I think we train our dogs as much as they train us. They tell us what works for them and what does not and we must always be open and responsive to them if we ever expect them to be open and responsive to us. A mutual relationship, learning hand in paw. Maybe I read your last post and this one too close to each other but I think that both ideas work together, choices and emotions. We have the choice to be in check with our emotions, if we are not then we are forcing our dogs to do as we say, we leave them no choice. The more we are in control of our emotions, the more choice a dog has in a relationship, and the more of a choice the humans have in the relationship as well. A win, win situation. Thank you for all of your thought provoking posts.

  4. This is where I am Nancy. Learning about my emotions and how they affect Tassie.. I am finally if not slowly learning how to back up in my training. Making it easier for Tass and more fun. Once I wrapped my brain around what you told me last winter about jump heights, I can now do what was suggested by Joelle and to jump with no bars up .. and we had fun too. I couldn’t keep up with tassies speed so worked on lead outs. Thanks nancy for always giving me new ways to think outside my box!

      1. I’m learning to keep things simple. So no Spanish. However, taking some tennis lessons. Guess what we are working on? Simplifying my strokes! Lordy !
        After 25 yrs in tennis And a hundred yrs with animals, am trying to learn to do simple.

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