After the eventful bustle and mud of the Grizzly Jamboree, the following day, Day One of the cattle camp, was distinctly serene, quiet, and above all, sunny. The huge globby ruts filled with ominously opaque water left by the RVs and travel trailers began to disappear with marvelous speed. The ducks grazed unmolested in their arena, the sheep vanished into the recesses of the hilly ranch, and we participants gathered for our introductory lecture.
There turned out to be only four actual handlers. There was me with Ty. There was a lady from Montana with two Kelpies. There was a trainer from western Nevada with three client dogs, all Aussies, and there was another lady from Nevada with an Aussie.
However, when you added in the two clients who had come to watch the trainer work their dogs, an auditor, and the two trial judges, Kaye Harris and Dana MacKenzie, who were staying on to visit and watch (they also each had a young dog who did some work), it made a fine social group.
Betty Williams has spent her whole life managing livestock, especially cattle. She wanted us to understand firstly, that cattle see and react to things in their own particular way, which anyone who wants to successfully move cattle around needs to understand. She talked about why cattle are baulked by shadows, why they lower their heads when they see a dog nearing them (both are because they have very poor depth perception), and how they kick. "Cows need opportunities to make choices", she told us. Let your stock settle. Think about what makes your stock comfortable, and work toward that goal. Harassed cattle who don't feel they have any options get cranky and uncooperative.
Then she discussed some mistakes she sees stockdog novices make when training their dogs on cattle. These included inadvertently pushing the cattle back on the dog by standing in the way of where you want them to go, not teaching your dog how to handle cattle without the crutch of a fence, and letting your dog 'swap ends', i.e. going to head and stopping the cows, and then, when they turn, running around and stopping them again. Young dogs seem to love to do this; the reason is because of their instinct to not let the stock get away.
It was an extraordinary surprise gift, that we got the benefit of the lights of Dana and Kaye as well as Betty. I wouldn't even try to total up the decades of cowdog experience of those three. Dana was only there for two of the four days but I felt that was made up for by getting to watch her work her very young and extremely talented dog, Billy, who may have only had a 'get back' and a stop on him, certainly little more.
When Betty decided one of the dogs could use some remedial work with sheep in the round pen, a small problem became evident, in that the entire herd of sheep had disappeared without a trace. Eventually they were spotted pretty far away, and Betty asked Dana to go out on the four-wheeler with Billy and bring them in.
We had already been completely impressed with Billy's fearless and clever way with cattle. But when we saw Dana barrelling along over the hill with Billy bringing the band of over a hundred sheep along behind at a brisk clip ('take time' was not in his repertoire yet), well, we all wanted to take him home.
Not exactly a big chance of that though.
Meanwhile, we were getting out there in the arena with the cows, and doing our best. We were a beginner bunch. It was hard for all the handlers to continually remember that cows don't work like sheep; the handler is a pressure, not a draw. Some of us were correcting too much, distracting and worrying our dogs. "A young dog's initial confidence on cattle is in his movement and sometimes his bark," Betty said. "Don't take that away from him." She wants the dog's first experiences on cattle to be completely positive, and doesn't correct much at all until he has gained sufficient confidence to not be thrown off by it. She emphasized using as few commands as possible and letting the dog take responsibility for controlling his cattle his own way.
Betty commented that, compared to last summer, Ty had matured a lot. She observed that our relationship was noticeably different. "He's much more tuned into you now; he respects you as a leader." She said he was thinking hard and working smart. I, however, was often in the wrong position, was drawing his attention away from the cattle by calling him to me, and was doing a lot of inexperienced handler things. She didn't tell me much of this, I just watched myself on video when I got home. Betty appears to believe that, just as you can tell a dog too many things at once, so too with people.
It didn't take Ty long to realize that it was okay to grip these big guys. But he didn't do a lot of wild mixing it up, he was judicious and careful. He looked to me to give him direction and tell him how he was doing. Maybe too much, given that I wasn't always telling him the right thing. Betty told me that Ty was a little worried about me.
Every dog was of course different. The one show-bred Aussie was barky — but barking wasn't limited to just her. I was impressed with this little bitch, who might never be forceful enough to face off really challenging cattle, but was filled to the brim with heart, try, and team spirit. She also had no small amount of cow sense.
Probably the other most interesting-to-me dog was a black and tan Aussie of Betty's lines, who had come to the camp with an adversarial relationship with his trainer. On cattle, he more or less ignored her, racing right through her stick directions and corrections with a clearly rebellious, 'you're not the boss of me' attitude. Betty talked to all of us about him, as an example of a dog who was reacting to incorrect use of handler pressure. Much like cattle that go on the prod when not given a safe place to move to, many strong working dogs fight back when the trainer does not release pressure. Soon the dog is resisting any pressure, since they've not been rewarded for giving to it.
This good talented dog was transformed over the course of the four days, as his handler learned how to release pressure as soon as he gave to it. By the end, he was working hard for her and doing his best to be right. "Dogs learn through RELEASE of pressure," Betty told us. That's what tells them they are doing the right thing. No release = no learning.