On the "Return to Common Sense" dog training email list, one of the trainers recently asked if timing is something that can be taught. Donald McCaig's answer was so beautifully written, I convinced him to share it with you. Enjoy.
By sheepdog trainer and author Donald McCaig
Jill asked a wonderful question--so wonderful I've come awake three midnights thinking about it. This was Jill's post:
"I do think timing is something that can be learned. But can it be taught? And if so, I'd love to hear stories, strategies, and/or techniques for how you teach it."
Yesterday two students came to our farm. It didn't go well. The sheep were too difficult, their dogs unready for outrunning 150 feet. Next week we'll set up differently.
They are ideal sheepdog students. They train horses and humans for a living; they own a hundred ewes. Their dogs are out of good working stock (three of the four could become open dogs and the 4th loves her owner enough to overcome her inadequacies.) My students came to me without excess baggage: neither has ever been lectured on "the 4 quadrants".
When a sheepdog is half a mile from your feet, timing commands is difficult. For starters, there's a 2 second lag between uttering and the command reaching the dog's ears. It will be faint of course, fainter if the dog is at a different elevation or if wind is blowing from dog to handler. There may be dead spots between dog and handler in which the dog can't hear anything.
At 800 yards, three, four or five sheep are a glisten, a smudge, difficult to pick out from the sagebrush and since it is directly behind the sheep, the dog is invisible.
There are strategies to improve results: louder whistles, rewarding more independent dog work, grosser commands. (At three hundred yards on a calm day one might ask for tiny moves several times per second. At 800, one can ask for very big behavior every five seconds.)
That's the goal. That's where you want to get to: handling wild sheep at the greatest possible distances elegantly and efficiently.
Without a moment's thought. If you think, you clutch.
How to get there with students and dogs who can't send a dog two hundred feet without it turning into a three species circus?
I am no memoirist and my life has been unexceptional. Since my sheepdog biography is ordinary,it may encourage novices who are no more talented than I.
I was forty-two years old, farmer/writer, struggling to make the mortgage payments, arrogant and "wordy" (convinced that words could do more real work than they can). We'd owned sheep for five years; I did the grunt work, my wife Anne was the shepherd.
A friend meant to pick up a Border Collie pup at the Virginia State Fair and I hadn't a birthday present for Anne. "Get me one too," I said.
I didn't know anybody who worked stockdogs and back then, there were maybe ten trials every year in North America, no handler's organization, two tiny inefficient warring registries, no sheepdog magazines and the only book I found in the Sheepman's Supply catalog was John Holmes "The Farmer's Dog".
Luckily Pip was clappy (readily downed), biddable (I trained his outrun WITHOUT SHEEP), hardheaded, and ultimately--forgiving.
Remembering those days and what I knew, thought and thought I knew--I recall that when Pip was completely baffled by my ill-timed opaque commands, he'd circle my legs, yelp and nip my calves. But one afternoon, without my asking, Pip outran 300 yards gathered a hundred ewes and brought them to my feet. I'd never seen anything like it. It was beautiful. So beautiful that next day I put Anne's best replacement yearlings in a small field to show her what Pip could do. Oops. Those sheep hit the fence so hard it was a wonder none broke their necks.I gratefully recall Anne's courtesy...without one word, she walked back to the house.
A friend heard about a sheepdog trial nearby.I remember wondering why the handlers kept telling the dogs to lie down and the dogs didn't lie down. Pip..now he'd LIE DOWN!!!!!
At the trial I heard about a sheepdog clinic and, some months later, arrived at Ethel Conrad's farm where Jack Knox was instructing twenty of us would-be sheepdoggers.
When Pip, I, three Barbadoes sheep and Jack knox were in a fifty foot snow fence ring, there were too many creatures, moving too fast. BLUR/WHAT?/BLUR.
Pip jumped over the snowfence and slipped under my VW and couldn't be coaxed out.Actually, I thought Pip had a pretty good idea.I would have joined him if I could.
42 years old I was beginning a new life.
The Scots say it takes ten years and three dogs to make a sheepdog handler. Although Pip ran and even placed in open trials, it was ten years and two dogs later before i won my first.
So no, I don't think timing can be taught.I think that what the dog and sheep are actually, in real time, DOING can be explained and if the student is ready to hear--some explanations stick. My students and their dogs are much improved from when they first came. If I died tomorrow, they'd continue to get better without my help. They're plugged into sheepdog culture and know other sources.
10,000 hours.T hat's the famous estimate of the time required to achieve mastery. Plus good mentoring. When I taught writing, I warned my students: Time is not compressible. If they wanted to write, they had to give something else up. For many, that was harder than developing writing skills.
I had no dog theories when I started and owned a flock of sheep. Good. I like to learn Good. I'm opinionated. Bad. I can't dance. Very bad.
I persisted because of that morning when Pip swept out and gathered those ewes and it was beautiful; because I wanted to do that again. I wanted to be part of that.
After yesterday's not very good lesson at my farm, one student kept exclaiming about my dog Fly. She'd shed off fifteen training sheep from a 150 ewe flock and balanced them to me, despite their desperate attempts to break away, until I got a gate open.Yes, she was beautiful. My student saw something there he'd like to be part of.
The motel breakfast room at my first IACP conference was open to the lobby and off limit to dogs. Janeen McMurtrie's two Leonbergers sat/stayed just outside, like two amiable wookies for twenty minutes while Janeen ate. They were beautiful. I could be part of that.
Timing takes the time we devote because we cannot live without beauty.
Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken;
Or like stout Cortez, when with eagle eyes
He stared at the Pacificland all his men
Look'd at each other with a wild surmise
Silent, upon a peak in Darien.
Donald McCaig (with an assist from Mr. Keats)
Donald McCaig is a well known author and poet, One of his most acclaimed books is Rhett Butler's People, the second sequel to Margaret Mitchell's Gone with the Wind. He is also well known for his contributions to National Public Radio's All Things Considered , Dog lovers will enjoy his books such as Eminent Dogs, Dangerous Men: Searching through Scotland in Search of a Border Colllie. The photos above are of him teaching students and their Border Collies, plus one of his dog "Fly" working sheep on the his farm in the Virginia mountains, where McCaig practices his true love, training and working Border Collies.